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Rereading old grad school papers and notes in your late 40’s is not to be done lightly.  

I spent much of Sunday afternoon in the basement, sorting through old books and papers to try to free up some space and reduce the amount of kindling down there. Several boxes contained old notebooks and papers from grad school, which in my case meant the early 90’s.


The first shock was seeing so much dot matrix print, complete with perforations on the sides of the page where the tractor feed sprockets went. For those of a certain age, dot matrix type on tractor-feed paper will bring back very specific memories. If you don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, count yourself lucky. Think of it as the 8 bit version of typeface, only without the charm.

The content was remarkable. I have no memory of the actual writing process for any of them, so they’re like reading somebody else, except that they’re clearly in my voice. The full-length papers ranged from “not embarrassing” to “really embarrassing,” which was to be expected given how overwhelmed I was at the time. But I also found a series of 1-3 page summaries I had done for some study groups. They’re chatty and unabashedly incomplete. Reading them now, they’re clearly blog posts; we just didn’t have blogs yet. But they’re about, say, Locke or Aristotle, rather than IPEDS or financial aid.  

But the titles! Oh my, the titles. This was when the whole lit-crit-pomo wave was cresting, at least in America, and even political theorists were getting in on the action, such as it was. I did a paper applying literary theory to the social text of yellow ribbons -- this was right after the first Gulf war -- and called it “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around This.” A paper for a stats class, in which I failed to find a statistical relationship between gender and support for some policy or another, was titled “But Sex Always Affects a Relationship!” This was years before I discovered the singer Kristin Hersh and adopted her approach to titles. Something may have been lost there.

Coming face-to-face with your intellectual past is sort of humbling. I remember some of the ambitions I had then. At the time, they seemed terribly urgent. With the distance of decades, it’s pretty clear that to realize them, I would have had to be another person. They aren’t really embarrassing anymore, since I don’t own them anymore; they feel more like developmental stages. They’re no more embarrassing than remembering wanting to be an astronaut.  I remember some of the ambitions, but I don’t mourn them. They evolved.

Part of it is the difference between, say, 24 and 48. At 24 I was single and childless, nearly monastic in an agnostic sort of way, and pretty much obsessed with getting big philosophical and political questions right. At 48, I’m a married father of two with ambitions that are more grounded and concrete. But the taste for chatty 1-3 page thought pieces hasn’t changed. If anything, they’ve become part of my daily routine. Luckily for me, in the interim, an entire distribution platform emerged for them. Instead of thinking of my graduate work as shallow and reductive, I prefer to think of it as having been ahead of its time.  

Hey, they’re my papers, I’ll interpret them as I want.  

(I’m told that arithmetically, 48 is as close to 72 as it is to 24. I consider that preposterous on its face. We need an alternate math.)

I found a few artifacts, too. The niftiest was a typed letter from the sociologist David Riesman, whom I had interviewed in 1994. It’s brief and gracious, and very much a keeper. From the perspective of 2017, what stands out in my memory of him is the simple fact that a superstar emeritus was willing to take the time to have lunch with a twentysomething nobody from New Jersey.  His wife was there, too, and they could not have been kinder or more thoughtful. I don’t remember much of what was said, but I remember their decency and kindness. I still have the paperback copy of The Lonely Crowd that he signed for me. That survived the purge.

The basement is getting there. I decided that if I haven’t consulted lecture notes since the Clinton administration, it’s probably safe to toss them. But the stuff I wrote is staying. I may not be the painfully callow grad student I was then, but I remember him, and don’t want to lose touch completely.  He wasn’t the deepest thinker around, or the most focused, but he could turn a phrase when he had to.  I’ll let that voice keep coming from inside the house.


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