Super Bowl XXI and Vicarious Living

January 28, 2012

New York Giants as underdogs, January 26, 2012. (BlasBlasB via http://Flickr.com). In public domain.In little more than a week, my New York (football) Giants will play against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, and hopefully win their fourth NFL championship. It’s good for me to watch this process unfold — again. Only without the significant emotional and psychological attachment I had to my Giants back in the days of Bill Parcells, Phil Simms, Mark Bavaro, Phil McConkey, Joe Morris, Lawrence Taylor, Leonard Marshall, Carl Banks, Elvis Patterson, and Harry Carson, among so many others.

It’s been twenty-five years and three days since my Giants won their first Super Bowl, against John Elway and the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. Or, as Dick Enberg put it over and over again, “the man with the golden arm,” who looked like Tim Tebow most of the game against the Giants pass rush. At times after that win on January 25, ’87, it seemed as if that was the only thing that went right for me that year.

Of course, that wasn’t true. After all, this was also my senior year at Mount Vernon High School, about to graduate and move on to the University of Pittsburgh that fall. But at seventeen years old, in the middle of my obsession with Crush #2, and feeling the pressures of life at 616, the ridicule of some classmates at MVHS, and the need to grasp my future, I needed many forms of escape.

The Giants had served as one major form of escape for me since the ’83 season. Yeah, their 3-12-1 season. I was neither a Giants nor a Jets fan, but after watching what had happened with both teams that year, I felt sorriest for the Giants. With a first-year coach like Bill Parcells not knowing yet how to coach his team, I just felt they had nowhere else to go but up. They hadn’t won a championship since ’56, and didn’t look like they were going to win one anytime soon.

Just like me. As an underdog in life, I already was rooting for teams that no one else would care to talk

Mark Bavaro after touchdown catch in Super Bowl XXI, January 25, 1987 (note the kneel down that people now attribute to Tebow). (Walter Iooss, Jr. via http://nypost.com).

about. The Jets just looked like a team that squandered talent, they had Richard Todd, and they never played as hard as the Giants. So by the end of the year I didn’t care to watch them anymore.

I watched or listened to my Giants play football virtually every Sunday from that point on, but that didn’t interfere with my studies. It often helped me remember obscure information, especially as my ability to study at 616 complete deteriorated. Through a visual cue, like Phil Simms throwing a touchdown pass on a crossing route or post pattern to Mark Bavaro, I could remember how to solve a specific function or recall a series of “if-then” statements for a Pascal program.

Then, after disappointment in the playoffs in ’84 and ’85 at the hands of the 49ers and the Bears, the Giants won Super Bowl XXI, blowing out and brutalizing each team they faced along the way. My underdog team had become a juggernaut in three seasons, meaning that there was hope for me yet.

But it would take me a bit longer to see myself as a winner, a champion, someone deserving of a victorious life. When I did, a couple of years before the Giants’ second Super Bowl victory in January ’91, I realized that I didn’t need to live and die with any team I was a fan of in order to validate the meaning of my own life. Rooting for the Giants, win or lose, has given me a small degree of joy over the years, like a kid just enjoying the excellence of his team. How it translates for my own life is immaterial. It’s up to me to decide how much victory in my life I’m willing to fight for, and how much success I can stand.


Taking the Long Road: Driver’s Delight

January 23, 2012

Our 2004 Honda Element, Mount Vernon, NY, November 2006. (Donald Earl Collins)

How I was able to get my driver’s license twenty years ago tomorrow is a shining example of my late bloomer status. I started in the middle of May ’88, a couple of weeks after the end of my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. My main motivation was the fact that the only piece of picture identification I had was a choice between my Pitt ID and my old Mount Vernon High School ID. It also seemed to me that I couldn’t hope to travel or to get a good job without having a driver’s license.

1974 or 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, cropped and colored green, January 23, 2012. (http://http://www.allcollectorcars.com). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because photo is of low resolution, cropped and altered for purposes of post.

I knew plenty of people with cars, but in my family and immediate circle, only my idiot stepfather Maurice had a license. In the eleven years he’d been in our lives, he had access to his Reliable cab for two years (’77-’79), and had owned a ’70s-era Coupe de Ville for about a year and a half. At least until he burned out his engine on the New Jersey Turnpike earlier in ’88.

Despite all of these disadvantages, I began my journey. At the end of my second week back, I grabbed a manual at the White Plains DMV, leafed through it, and took the exam. I passed with a 70, making the cut by two questions. I scheduled and took my first driving lesson two days later. I was quickly on my way to becoming a licensed driver.

But if I hoped to follow-up on that quick success with a job that could cover the cost of more driving lessons, I was sorely mistaken. I spent the rest of the summer of ’88 unemployed, like nearly seventy percent of Black males my age that summer. This began the off and on again cycle of my quest for one simple symbol of adulthood.

Even in the midst of my fall of homelessness and with $205 to work with between Labor Day and Thanksgiving ’88, I continued plugging away. I’d gone at the end of October to the Pittsburgh DMV center off Washington Boulevard, near the bridge across the Allegheny River into the northern suburbs. I ended up walking from Welsford through Oakland to Forbes, then Fifth Avenue, stayed on Fifth through Shadyside and Point Breeze and Homewood-Brushton until it turned into Washington Blvd, then kept going until I reached the center. It took me an hour to get there and another to get back. In between I scored a 95 on the Learner’s Permit exam, making me eligible to get a driver’s license in two states.

I even got my former CIS (Computer and Information Systems) co-worker Bill to give me a driving lesson in Highland Park Zoo’s parking lots before he left for Virginia that March for a job with AT&T. It was February ’89. I was behind the wheel of Bill’s car, his “babemobile,” his white ’88 Ford Thunderbird. It was an easy lesson until I screwed up. I was going too fast on a left-turn, cut the car too close to an embankment. We ended up going down a short grassy hill that cut off one side of the large parking lot from the other. Bill was terrified and a scary shade of purple for his car. I’d no sooner parked it then he had jumped out to make sure there wasn’t any damage. I knew that this lesson was over.

I continued taking driving lessons off and on in ’89 and ’90, between Kauffman’s Driving School (at $53 an hour), my Pitt friends, and a couple of 616 folks in Mount Vernon. By September ’90, with about twenty-five hours of driving lessons under my belt, I thought I was ready. After three driving test failures, I was obviously mistaken. Then my money ran out again, and then I started grad school the following year. I wondered, sometimes out loud, whether I’d finish my master’s degree before I’d earn my driver’s license.

It all came together at the beginning of January ’92. I decided to spend whatever it would take for me to pass the driver’s test on the Washington Blvd course in Pittsburgh. I took seven hours’ worth of lessons from Kauffman’s in ten days, mostly to practice parallel parking and three-point turns in a ’88 Chevy Cavalier. I

1991 Chevy Cavalier - similar to one I drove on day I got my driver's license, Gaithersburg, Maryland, July 5, 2008. (IFCAR via Wikipedia). In public domain.

practiced turns with my dinner plate in my apartment in between the lessons.

Finally, we scheduled my driver’s test for 9 am on Friday, January 24. That morning, it began to snow. By the time I drove to the test site, six inches of snow had fallen. I was the first person on the course. Between that and the falling snow, I was comfortable. Seven minutes later, I’d done it all, and had barely parked the car after hearing the words “You’ve passed” before literally jumping out of it and into the snow.

It took me three years, eight months and eleven days in all to pass my driver’s test in Pittsburgh. At the time, I was prouder of that than I was of any of my academic achievements or other personal triumphs. A month after my twenty-second birthday, I’d now earned the right to add to humanity’s carbon footprint. As well as a real badge of adulthood.


Getting My Son To Eat Lunch

January 19, 2012

Lunch at a DC public school, (the closest approximation to the pizza lunches I've observed this school year), March 14, 2011. (http://betterdcschoolfood.blogspot.com). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws, as photo is used only to illustrate subject of post, not for reproduction.

I’m out of new ideas, old ideas, tried and true ideas. In the three and a half years since my son began kindergarten in Montgomery County Public Schools, he has become increasingly picky and undisciplined about eating his lunch. He eats breakfast, snacks throughout the evening, and eats his dinner just fine. But lunch, oh, lunch — it’s been a struggle.

Noah hates sandwiches, ALL sandwiches. He stopped eating peanut butter and jelly almost a year and a half ago. For most of second grade, I bought Noah chicken nuggets, the organic kind from Whole Foods, toast them, put them in a Thermos, pack a separate container with ketchup, and had confidence that he’d eat most or all of it. Then last March, I did one of my random lunches with him at his school, only to discover that Noah had been throwing away his lunch from home, for at least two months according to one of his friends. “The nuggets are too hard and cold,” he said.

My son all but gave up on the lunches served at his school two years ago. By the second month of first grade — October 2009 — Noah would only eat the chicken nuggets lunch or the hot dog lunch. By the end of that school year, it was just the chicken nuggets lunch. Given my observations of two dozen or so lunches served at his school since August ’08, I can’t really blame him. Holmes Elementary’s cold PB&J sandwiches, A.B. Davis’ grilled ham and cheese sandwiches (at least by how they smelled), and Mount Vernon High School’s “murder burgers and suicide fries” would be like eating at Ruth’s Chris Steak House for Noah and his compadres these days. (By the way, thanks Akbar Buckley for the burgers and fries refrain, wherever you are).

Noah proud of his cinnamon sugar donuts, December 18, 2011 (maybe should serve for his lunch now). (Donald Earl Collins).

I’ve spent morning after morning fixing lunches that I hoped Noah would eat. I’ve done everything I know and then some. Let’s see. McDonald’s McNuggets and fries, cheese pizza slices, Oscar Meyer Lunchables, turkey drumsticks, chicken drumsticks, meat slices, bologna sandwiches, turkey sandwiches, beef patties, spaghetti and meat sauce, apples, chips, Goldfish, cookies, homemade french bread, fruit snacks and Fruit Roll-Ups, pancake and bacon, and hot dogs. His response. “The hot dog is cold, and the bread is too hard,” or “I didn’t have time to eat,” or “I don’t like sandwiches,” or the slice of pizza was “too big.”

This is where we are. Noah, like every other student, needs to eat in order to function at maximum capacity academically. But my guess is that the constant noise of his lunchroom and the chaos that is recess is a distraction for him. MCPS’ stripped down budget and bare minimum USDA-approved lunches don’t help stimulate his digestive tract either.

It’s not like he could walk home for lunch like I did all through elementary school. Kids within half a block of Noah’s school aren’t allowed to walk home, given the times we live in. And we live a mile and a half from his school anyway. Short of picking him up for lunch every day — which I doubt he’d want — I’ve lost my footing on this issue. I don’t want to go there with disciplinary actions, not with food, not with the way kids handle food these days. Hmm…


Burnout

January 16, 2012

Cartoon of a patient consulting a doctor about a burn-out (Dutch -- "You are having a burnout."), April 17, 2008. (Welleman via Wikipedia). In public domain.

It’s a word I rarely admit to. One that I usually notice signs of, but try to work through anyway. But as I’ve learned over the years, I’ve needed to acknowledge and understand my burnouts before moving forward and avoiding the conditions that produced it in the first place.

My first experience with burnout was my sophomore year of high school in June ’85. It came after three solid months of applying my memorization skills (some would say near-photograph memory skills) full-time, without the time and space to study at 616 or the support of good teachers that year, especially in Chemistry with the not-so-great Mr. Lewis. That, and no food at home during finals/Regents exams week made me actually sick of school for the first time (see my “Hunger” post from June ’08).

I went through something similar in late November and December ’89, the end of the first half of my junior year at Pitt. I had put together what I called a “total semester” plan for the first time, to organize my life so that I’d have a life outside of my classes and to take a shot at a 4.0 that semester. Only, I was dumb enough to take third-semester calculus a year and a half after my last math course, and I was now a history major taking writing intensive courses.

That, and finding out that one of my closest female friends was attracted to another, much shorter guy — also a friend of mine — meant for a rocky last three weeks of ’89. And I’d unwittingly helped to set them up. I managed a 2.98 GPA that terrible semester, including a D+ in multiple integrals and differential equations. Terrible, at least by my own standards.

Burning Brain (cropped), January 16, 2012. (Selestron76 via http://dreamstime.com). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws.

I was beginning to understand that my occasional burnout wasn’t just because of school or work, but because some area of my life had caused me significant emotional turmoil, which in turn affected my performance in other areas. The period between December ’96 and September ’98 was a long period of burnout for me. I have written here before about my battles with Joe Trotter and Carnegie Mellon as I completed my dissertation at the end of ’96 — too many times for some people’s tastes. What I haven’t discussed is the emotional toll that process took on me and how long it took for me to recover.

I spent most of ’97 and ’98 angry, raging ready to actually strangle most of the folks on Carnegie Mellon’s campus after finishing the degree. I couldn’t look at Trotter without wanting to wrap piano wire around his throat from behind and feeling him squirm as I cut the life out of him. Yeah, it was bad. As my now wife of twelve years can attest, I’d get into arguments with cashiers at CVS over a nickel and their complete disdain for their duties, ready to throw a punch.

But I also couldn’t write, at least write in the ways in which I wanted. I could execute the mechanical exercise of writing well enough, even put together papers for presentation and articles for publication. I even wrote an editorial on race with my then girlfriend that was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March ’98. Still, I was writing mostly because I didn’t believe in writer’s block or in burnout, this despite all the contrary evidence.

Add the fact that I’d learned that my own mother was actually jealous of me for going to school, among other things (see “My Post-Doctoral Life” post from May ’08). I was burned out, a sad person to be around for most of ’97 and a good portion of ’98. All while I was an underemployed adjunct professor at Duquesne and working part-time at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. I’m not sure how Angelia put up with me, because it was hard for me to put up with me.

So, how did I pull out of my burnout? Time after the doctorate, away from Carnegie Mellon (I didn’t set foot on the campus for nearly two years after I cleaned out my cubicle in July ’97), for starters. Having people in my life who needed me to be me at my best, like Angelia and my Duquesne students, for instance, helped.

But the need to find full-time work and the realization that staying in Pittsburgh to wait for Trotter to be run

Spool of piano wire, with 247 ft-lbs of torque (enough to kill), January 16, 2012. (http://http://www.monumentalelevatorsupply.com).

over by a PA-Transit bus for a potential job opening was also a great motivator. I realized that despite everything, I’d gained more than I lost in earning my doctorate, and that I may yet find my better self again by putting those roiling emotions in a box in my mind’s attic.

I’ve felt burnout since. In a family intervention from a decade ago, in moving on from New Voices, even in my current context as consultant and professor. At least I’m more aware when I’m feeling that way, and am able to cope with those emotions with reminders of what and whom I have in my life that remains true and good.


Regis and Donald Earl

January 12, 2012

Regis & Kathie Lee cover, cropped, People Magazine, September 30, 1991. (http://people.com). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright laws because picture is cropped and of low resolution.

In a conversation I had with my mother about sixteen years ago, she said, “I always thought that all your friends were weird.” This after having broken up with a girlfriend a few weeks before, my first serious relationship in three years. Thanks, Mom! Of course, a month later, I began dating my wife of nearly twelve years (and yes, my mother thinks that Angelia’s weird, too!).

But she did have a point, albeit a small one. Some nerve, since I’m her son, after all! I had accepted this reality by my second semester at the University of Pittsburgh. This after a semester of attempting to be cool, then to not be cool, then to just close myself off out of picking my old Crush #2 scab.

I began my second semester in January ’88, attempting to meet people more like myself, which often meant meeting people a good five or ten years older than me, students comfortable in their own weirdness. The first friend I made this way was Regis. He was a working-class Western Pennsylvanian through and through, with that guttural Pittsburgh-ese accent. Regis said “jag-off” for “jack-off,” “ruff” for “roof,” “yinz” for “you all” or “y’all,” and “dahntahn” for “downtown.”

Regis had been unemployed for nearly a year, laid-off by Westinghouse, where for the previous five years he guarded a boiler room in one of their plants. He was about five-foot-six, constantly scruffy and disheveled, and sometimes looked like he was a step or two away from insanity. Kind of like a Pitt student’s version of Rasputin.

Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), screen shot -- closest approximation to Regis, circa 1988 -- January 12, 2012. (http://examiner.com). Qualifies as fair use under US Copyright Laws due to low resolution and limited use for blog post.

But Regis was a quick study and absolutely enjoyed going to college, as he was a deeply critical thinker. Heck, he was the smartest person I knew during my Pitt and Carnegie Mellon years! As a result, we hit it off right away in our discussion sections on Friday mornings in Western Civilization II. Me and Regis would often gang up on the rest of the class in the discussion of all things Western European-related, from the French Revolution  to the connections between the European slave trade, the Industrial Revolution, and European imperialism. It was wonderful not being the only oddball in class for a change.

What made us friends, though, had more to do with the fact that Regis didn’t allow himself to be blinded by my attempts to hide the real truth behind my weirdness. He saw through my coping strategies to mask the battering I’d taken from poverty, abuse and Humanities in Mount Vernon. Regis was there for me my sophomore year at Pitt in a way that any true friend would be.

After my bout with homelessness — which I hadn’t told Regis about — I was broke from Labor Day to Thanksgiving. Despite my pride and my mother’s constant mantra of not asking for “handouts,” I first asked Regis for help in November ’88. This after he noticed that we weren’t even hanging out at the Roy Rogers in the Cathedral of Learning anymore.

“To be honest, I’ve only had $205 to my name since September,” I said.

“How’ve you been making it?,” Regis asked.

“Spaghetti one week, pork neck bones and rice the next, tuna fish after that. I’m now down to peanut butter sandwiches,” I said.

“What’s ‘pork neck bones’?” Regis asked, with this incredulous look on his face.

After explaining the intricacies of my diet and poor people’s cooking — especially since this was the first time I’d eaten any pork in seven and a half years — Regis finally said

“I don’t have much, but I can at least bring you some bread and a potata. We don’t want you out here starvin’,” having patted me on my right shoulder as our conversation ended.

Sure enough, later that week, Regis actually gave me some bread and a small sack of potatoes. It would’ve been enough to make me cry, but I was too hungry and tired to do much more than say a weak “Thank you.” That, and make the most of four days’ worth of Russet potatoes.

Regis was in my circle on other matters that semester. We talked, mostly about his Heidegger course, a scary existential philosophy course for anyone to take. I heard so much from Regis about Heidegger’s Being and Time that I felt like I was in the course. Whenever the subject came up, he was always like, “So you got a hot date tonight, right?” No excuse was good enough for him, whether it was lack of money or lack of confidence.

I stayed in touch with Regis for years after that semester and year. We took a Greek History course together in the fall of ’89. I began introducing him to my other weird and not-so-weird friends. He introduced me to working-class White Pittsburgh, for better and for worse. We stayed in touch during the summers I was back in Mount Vernon, through our master’s degrees and my doctorate at Carnegie Mellon.

The last time I saw Regis was in May ’96, just as my fight over my dissertation with Joe Trotter (see my “Running Interference” post from April ’11) was in high gear. Despite two degrees — both in Philosophy — and a professorial disposition, Regis hadn’t secured regular work and was still living at home in East Pittsburgh with his parents. I encouraged him to get a doctorate. But sensing how unhappy I was with my own process, Regis said, “How’s that workin’ out for ya?”

I wonder how Regis is doing today. Well, I should just look him up. After all, we’re both weird Pitt grads!


For-Profit College Students Face Higher Debt, More Unemployment, Report Finds

January 9, 2012


As a professor and educator, these numbers are appalling, but they only tell part of the story with for-profit and public universiti­es who emulate these models. Many of these schools have graduation rates of between five (5) and (15) percent for associate’­s degrees and bachelor’s degrees. Many do not provide services that help nontraditi­onal students become successful postsecond­ary students. Many of these schools have policies and pricing alignments that actually make it harder for students to enroll and stay enrolled at their institutio­ns.

We shouldn’t surprised or shocked that those lucky few who do graduate face steep student loans and unemployme­nt, underemplo­yment, or employment outside of their original career aspiration­s. These institutio­ns are about making money by gathering bodies filled with financial aid dollars first, and providing the means to an education (not necessaril­y a quality education second). And with huge advertisin­g budgets, more folks hoping for better jobs and quality educations will attend and find neither.
Read the Article at HuffingtonPost


Breakdown: The Messiah Complex At Work, Part II

January 7, 2012

Cosmo, from Nicktoons' Fairly Odd Parents, a reminder of Ken, January 5, 2012. (http://fairlyoddparents.wikia.com).

The saying goes that a lawyer who represents him or herself at trial has a fool as counsel. This is also true of a supervisor who believes that the only ideas worth pursuing are his own, unadulterated ones. Especially one in the midst of a nervous breakdown, who who’d know since the late-1980s that he had bipolar disorder. This was the case of my last days at New Voices in January ’04, as I prepared to move on, and as Ken prepared to flip out (see my “The Messiah Complex At Work, Part I” from November ’11).

The seven weeks between the weird November meeting with Ken and others and his breakdown were tension filled. I worked out a schedule that allowed me to take until the middle of February — three months — to find another position at the Academy for Educational Development or elsewhere. Beyond that, I did my job, and found Ken constantly snooping in my office, monitoring my telephone calls, and double-checking my times in and out of the office in the meantime. It was as bad as it was during my first weeks working for him in December ’00 and January ’01.

I’d long suspected that Ken had some mental illness, either bipolar disorder or paranoid schizophrenia (as I noted in my “Working At AED: Alternate Sources of Fear” post in June ’11). And in the year prior to January ’04, I’d made some of my suspicions known, to superiors like “Driving Miss Daisy” Sandra, my former Center Director Yvonne. I’d even taken two New Voices colleagues out to lunch that summer — a month before the birth of my son — to warn them about the signs I’d seen of Ken become more maniac and paranoid than usual.

But I didn’t realize that Ken’s condition knew no bounds. So it was that on the morning of Wednesday, January 7, that Driving Miss Daisy had called us into an impromptu meeting with Ken. We went into the seventh floor conference room, not knowing why we were meeting. Ken came in last, after I’d spent about five minutes updating Driving Miss Daisy about the preparation status for the New Voices gathering at the World Social Forum in Mumbai.

His face was flush, the color of freshly caught and gutted salmon, and sweat ran through his hair like he’d just run his five-foot-two frame a couple of miles in a sprint. He came in, sat down as I continued the update, then started to cry. Ken said, “Sandra, I’ve got to go,” and then left in a rush. By the time we had adjourned, Ken had left the building.

I wouldn’t see the man again for another five weeks. In the meantime, several AED higher-ups brought me up to speed on what had occurred between the time I changed my son’s diapers and disembarked from the Metro at Du Pont Circle that morning. Ken and Driving Miss Daisy had met with AED’s president and CEO that morning about the status of the project. During that meeting, Ken had gone off on the head honcho, accusing him of sabotaging the project, of sabotaging him as the project leader, of being a corrupt, money-grubbing president. Of course, I found a letter in a printer two days before which summarized some of these

Georgetown University Hospital, Washington, DC December 16, 2008. (http://flickr.com).

ideas, but I’d no idea that Ken had printed it or planned to use it.

The next revelation dropped that Saturday, although I wouldn’t learn of it until I came back to work that Monday, January 12. Ken had left me a message Saturday morning, around 8 am, apologizing for the hell that he had put me through the previous couple of months. Then, as his voice started to crack, Ken said, “I love you, Donald!” I heard a sniffle, and then a click on the message. Within that week, I learned from one colleague in human resources that Ken had checked into the psychiatric ward at Georgetown University Hospital, and from another person that it was Driving Miss Daisy who’d driven him there.

There are any number of lessons that I or anyone can draw from this experience. For me, of all of the jobs I’ve held, this one was the most bittersweet experience, and in retrospect, I probably should’ve said no to it when it was offered to me in November ’00. That everyone with some authority who worked with me or Ken should’ve but didn’t notice the signs of his manic-depressive behavior.

That no matter my integrity or proper professional behavior under the circumstances, that I’d end up the bad guy. After all, my staff went to Mumbai without me — Driving Miss Daisy’s decision — while I went on to hold down the fort and found another position at AED. And don’t tell me race wasn’t involved. A tall mentally stable and heterosexual Black male versus a short, bipolar and semi-in-the-closet White male? Only in this world does the latter keep his position another six years after this and several other breakdowns.

That said, one thing stands out above all else. It’s a sad but important lesson about the difference being true to yourself and lying to yourself, about finding the right balance between life and career.


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