Sunday, June 15, 2003

So it's official. Yesterday, on a cool and foggy Friday afternoon in the Windy City, I walked down Harper Quad at the University of Chicago and picked up a masters degree in international relations. It was graduation: bagpipes played, senior citizens wore freaky academic regalia, and 22 years after the divorce, Mom and Dad exchanged frosty greetings.

The title of my thesis: "Unimagined Miseries: Nationalism, Khmer Rouge Policy, and Khmer Identity." What that means I'm not exactly sure anymore.

Getting the degree is an enormous relief. I started it in 1997, back when I thought I wanted to be an academic. Two years of masters work at the U of C didn't dissuade me from that, in no small part because being a graduate student there is really fun, especially if you're on the masters level--i.e., especially if you're not worried about writing a dissertation and going on the academic job market.

No, what masters students at Chicago get a lot of is people telling them: "This is a great institution, and you are quite possibly brilliant just by virtue of your being here." It's infectious, slightly addictive--being on that stately old campus, reading great books, and--maybe best of all--talking and dancing and flirting with colleagues. I loved my years there, definitely as an undergraduate and, I think, even more as a grad student.

I also drank a lot, and that's the main reason it took me six years to get the degree. I had finished all but the thesis by spring of '99, but then I freaked out, and then I came here to Madison to start a Ph.D., and after not too long that plan wasn't working out, and meanwhile my boozing got completely out of control, and then after a while I was homeless and had stopped bathing regularly.

So I quit drinking, almost two years ago now, and I started trying to figure out what went wrong--or, to take the more optimistic tack, what to do to set things right.

I started cleaning up some messes, and one of those messes was this masters program. So I got back in touch with my department at the U of C, wrote the thesis, and--last Friday--graduated.

Redemption songs, my friends, redemption songs.

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