Postcard: Salt Lake City 7/28/2020
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It starts off fine
For the first few months of high school, I hated French.
It didn't make sense. I didn't like the way it sounded. I failed my first quiz.
Then something clicked. I stopped thinking in my English-speaking voice. Almost overnight, French became easy - as would Russian in college and German in graduate school.
I hated French. It didn't make sense. I didn't like the way it sounded. I failed my first quiz.
Very little comes to me naturally. I'm terrible at most things, and not good at just about everything else. Learning a foreign language, however, was something I could do with little effort.
Many would turn here
So I decided to be a French major.
People would ask - usually in a snide and condescending way, because an astonishing number of people are gaping assholes - What do you want to do with your degree? I would reply, Get it framed and hang it on the wall.
I knew what they meant, though. Many students go to college to get a job - and I applaud that - but I was in school to learn.
For my major, I studied history, literature, sociology, art history, and film - all centered on France and the francophone world. I was exposed to new ideas and taught how to think critically. As a bonus, I traveled around western Europe. That may not be your definition of an ideal education, but it was mine, and it kicked ass.
Even more specialized
I worked as a programmer for a year after college, then entered a PhD program in French literature at UC Davis.
The first two years in Davis were some of the happiest of my life. I took seminars and supported myself through teaching. I traveled around northern California. I dated a few women.
I was exposed to new ideas and I learned how to think.
After a few years, I settled on a dissertation topic: Le peuple in the historical novel of the French Restoration. I wrote my prospectus (a dissertation plan) and prepared for my qualifying exam - a three hour oral test where members of my committee could ask anything about my prospectus or the books on my reading list.
I read, almost exclusively, for eighteen months. My head felt like Violet Beauregarde after chewing the gum she stole from Willy Wonka, and the department library, where the exam took place, was the Juicing Room.
On exam day - it was the spring of 1995 - I started weakly, but I picked up steam bit by bit. The last half hour was actually fun. That night, I went to see the Gyuto Monks with a friend. It was quite a day.
Everything falls apart
Then I won a fellowship to study at the Ecole normale supérieure for the 1995-96 school year.
I read, almost exclusively, for eighteen months.
It was an incredible time. But things got ugly, too.
One problem: I was in an bad relationship when I left for Paris. We should not have been together. Another problem: I didn't do much work on my dissertation. I read a lot of Simenon, Balzac, and Flaubert - all unrelated. I traveled a lot. I made a few friends. I partied. But I was starting to realize that I didn't want to be in academia.
In other words, I had to extricate myself from a path that had a lot of hooks in me. The process was painful, expensive, and sad.
Despite the turbulence in Davis - and the eventual hard landing - I look back fondly on graduate school and those days in California and France. They shaped me as a person, educated me, and informed my Piraget novels.
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