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Friday, October 18, 2013

Goodbye Art

I arrived at grad school in 1990.

Champaign, Illinois was, by no means, a metropolitan city but it was bigger than any place I had lived. It had mass transit so, was bigger. I was 23 with an undergraduate degree and barely a clue. I was attending graduate school because I figured I might want to teach college at some point, maybe, I suppose, I think. I don't know.

I was lumped into a large room with other graduate students and assigned a desk and shelves. It wasn't much but it was mine and I felt important. I assumed that professors all worked as a team, that we would all come together for the betterment of academic truth. Didn't work like that. There are small worlds within an academic building that contain egos of all colors and sizes. There was no "Secret Santa" game at Christmas.

Art Spomer operated within this academic universe. A former Army captain, he was now a researcher in plant sciences. His disheveled hair always had the distinct "finger comb" look.  His shirts were plain and wrinkled and his tennis shoes were not expensive. He would show up at the office at 3:00 AM, claiming to be one of those people that only needed a few hours of sleep. And he never drank coffee.

I passed his office on the way out every day. His had a computer floppy disc pinned to the door with the message: ANYONE LOSE THIS? When the department head was out of town, Art was dubbed the Acting Head, a the humorous title not lost on Art when he taped the title to his door and underlined ACTING HEAD several times.

His office was dimly lit and packed with boxes, bowls, books and whatever else lurks in corners. I once stopped by with headphones around my neck, one of the speakers missing the foam padding. Art found not one but several foam covers I could use. Hidden within the magnificent disaster was order.

A bronze hand apparently clawing it's way out of the filing cabinet was the first thing to greet you. It was one of many works displayed in his office, works that he forged with his own hands. He was not just an accomplished scientist but a creative mind. In that transition between childhood and adulthood, a time when I needed to figure out where I fit in the world and why, Art's office was a reprieve. A timeout. It reminded me to stop and, usually, smile.

Something made me think of Art this week. I thought I'd throw him an email, say hi, see how he was doing. Sometimes I like to let people know what impact they had on my life. He died this past summer. I missed him by three months. This blog entry is a poor substitute but the only thing I have now.

Thanks, Art.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Where the Path Ends

Childhood is easy.

The path of our life is established by our parents. Let's assume they're good parents--a loving mother and father that have read Dr. Spock cover to cover. They record every precious moment of our lives as if we're the return of Mahatma Gandhi. If we're that lucky, the path will be wide, the terrain smooth and the food tasty.

They swing the machetes, clear the spider webs and hoe the soil so that our wobbly steps will be safe and our explorations fruitful. We eat, poop and watch is easy. The price for such direction and security is our freedom. Our parents tell what to do, that's all. They set the rules, we follow them, they maintain the path. That's the deal.

Eventually, we want our freedom. We want to grow up. And that's when the path narrows.

Little by little, our parents let us beat back the brush, fill the potholes and navigate over fallen trees without them. The road can get bumpy, muddy and wet. We can get tired and lost until, eventually, they turn the path over to us. It's all ours. And all we see are trees.

Where once we saw a trail, now there is only wilderness.

Swing your machete.

Find your path.