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Call Me Ishmael No More

A personal example, using myth to understand and make sense out of the course of one’s life, is from my early academic journey. It uses Moby Dick as a framing device. I also now have a few drafts under my belt of a fuller short memoir, “Call Me Ishmael.”

It came to fruition in structuring a story of this part of my life in my early days as a psych professor at Elizabethtown College, my second academic post. I think it got shaped while teaching a course on theories of personality, which I taught annually for over 30 years, one of my favorite courses. This was in part because my favorite undergraduate professor was the guy who taught this class when I was at Indiana University, in Bloomington. Despite his trying to honor my high score on an exam by having John Teste come to the front of the room, he did end up being my senior thesis advisor. Anyhow that last third of my own course was all about narrative theories of the person, one of the important layers of our self-understanding. Much of this was pulled together by one of the originators of the theory, Dan McAdams, author of the text I used through multiple editions. That and teaching an interdisciplinary capstone colloquium on “Narrative and Identity” were some of the important streams that were tributary to the whole neuromythology perspective. But the course, and the colloquium, came after the ship had actually sailed. Not The Pequod, I guess, but The Rachel, Melville's rescuer of Ishmael.

It began with a conversation with a good friend, Matt Hayman, whose memory I honor with this story though, sadly, he was also an example I eventually used in class of a person with “identity diffusion.” He never appeared to seriously consider or consistently commit himself to the sort of identity around which most of us build lives. We eventually grew apart, I think largely because he continued to reminisce about our college days long after I had built a career, started a family, and left much of my college memory back in those stormy seas of young adulthood. But Matt died young, the first of a nexus of friends from early adulthood to go, and the first real bellwether of our mortality.

These were still the days when he would sometimes hitchhike out, from far reaches of the country. He’d come to visit my wife and I living in uptown Harrisburg. I was teaching in my first faculty position at the branch of Penn State University there. It was a tough time in the academic job market, and I was actually the only one of my PhD cohort to land a tenure-track job. Still, it was a nightmarish transition from the validation of a well-attended doctoral oral, at the age of 26, after graduate studies supported by an NSF grant that, in the days of runaway inflation under Jimmy Carter, didn’t prevent me from needing food stamps. Matt and I had gone down the street for a few beers at the neighborhood dive. We were talking about life in general, and I think I was telling him that, while I thought I’d lead some kind of intellectual life, getting a doctorate wasn’t that important -- one of those moments when a dear old friend, in brutal honesty, tells you: “you’re full of shit.”

Matt was the son of a Purdue University professor of English, and was himself and addictive reader. Moby Dick was one of his favorites, which he’d read many times, and had long sections memorized. I had finally gotten around to reading it, the year I managed the west coast warehouse of Brentano’s Bookstore, across the street from the UCLA campus. So he asked me to remember a scene with him, where Ahab is saying “my soul is notched to an iron rail,” and he is making demonically clear that the white whale is his inescapable goal. “That’s what you were like in grad school.” Ouch. I do remember the guy for whom I TA’d graduate statistics telling me that I had to imagine that i would die if I didn’t get my dissertation finished before heading to the academic post for which I had been hired. Too many people he knew went off unfinished, and either had horrible times adapting to the responsibilities of a faculty post, taking extra years to finish, or eventually left and didn’t finish at all. I’d also broken up with a girlfriend in the early summer, which may have given me a springboard of energy, and was working full-time at a research job in Boston, commuting the hour or so from Worcester each day, and then spending the evening analyzing data or writing. A lot of people have this huge image of getting a dissertation done, which they sustain even though, like many goals, it seems smaller and smaller the closer you get, and then less and less as time passes after it is finished. But I was damn well going to get it done. I remember getting home from a full day of work, plus commute, sitting in a chair and putting a 2X4 behind my head so I could doze for a little bit, but if I started to nod off, my head would hit the wood. If that is what it took, that was what I would do. So I knew Matt was right, and I suspected that, in the eyes of others, my obsession might well have bordered on the satanic focus of Ahab, sacrificing boat and crew in his demonic quest. I now sometimes even think of the wooden heels of the boots I wore, clomping through the hallway of Jonas Clark Hall, in a three-piece suit on the way to my orals.

I think it wasn’t until a few years later, blindsided by a tenure denial at Penn State, that, thinking about what Matt had said, I realized that Penn State was the whale. It brings to mind for me the classic black and white movie version of Moby Dick, with Gregory Peck as Ahab, having harpooned the whale, getting caught in the lines, and appearing lashed to the side of the whale like a crucifixion, before the whale finally dives and Ahab is taken to the depths. But wait, no, that conversation with Matt was at the bar at the end of Logan Street, where my first wife and I only bought our first house a year after my tenure denial, the same year my daughter Johanna was born, now in her 30’s and a PhD in the serious and very real science of Astronomy!