Justin Skolnick lives and works in Portland.

A retrospective

Originally posted to blockquote.org on in Chicago, Illinois

The other option was “a self-styled curriculum and a library card.” But let’s be frank: you don’t pass up a shot at grad school when you’ve got the time and the savings. And when the school is only twelve miles down the road, it’s almost a no-brainer, regardless how prestigious or formidable the place is — and make no mistake, the place is prestigious and formidable. When you knock on the door and they hold it open to you, you go in.

Once inside, though, there were times — weeks, months — when psychosis seemed a reasonable, if not the most reasonable explanation for some of the feedback I got. On the other hand, there was something off about the place, something I picked up just by being around the other people it attracted, or by mentally stepping back from a class discussion and listening to the way they talked to each other.

Takes all types, right?

Some people thrive there and never want to leave; some feel outmatched from the start and barely make it through; some learn from striking a few broken keys how to coax something roughly like a melody out of the place.

Ultimately I worked my way into the last group and got out of grad school something near the thing I wanted. This, plus a few more white whiskers than mother nature might have painted in my beard had I spent those years at a less antagonistic institution. Or spent them free.

When it was done, I thought over those three long and agonizing years, and I asked myself the same questions people were asking me. Was it worth it? Looking back, would I go through it again?

What hit the hardest, reflecting on those three slow-crawling years that I came to measure by the week, was recognizing I hadn’t needed to be there to learn what I’d set out to learn. Don’t get me wrong; I feel nothing but respect and gratitude for some of my professors. And the certificate they gave me is beautifully typeset, I grant. But I could have traced influences through footnotes, followed my hunches when and where they led me, and made intelligent judgments to many of the same results, all without riffling through a minimum three hundred pages a week all for a few talking points to raise in the next seminar. Behind all that work I think there was a deeper lesson about, let’s say, society. But if the measure of a quality education is happiness — and that’s as reasonable a measure as any — then I could have been as happy with that other option.

What hit almost as hard was realizing that the card that enabled my pursuit of that notional “self-styled curriculum” could have been a credit card. Because, if not a library card, specifically tied to an academic library, I could have been anywhere in the world I wanted to be and pursued the same research wherever I went. Here a possibility emerged that hadn’t seemed a genuine possibility before. I realized that I could have left Chicago … and that at any time I still can leave.

Coming again to see a wide-open future was strange. Relative to the constraints of my academic commitment, sure, it was no great wonder. But cut me some slack — my head was still in the quarter system.

Yet here before me was a new view: I could leave this town and start clean, or as clean as you can get in this never-forgetting internet age. I could make another go at the life this often stubborn and adolescent city can make so hard to live. I could do my thing in whatever place I found most receptive to the thing I do. And if I decided to stay in Chicago — a bigger if than some would believe — it wouldn’t be without a serious hashing out of new conditions for staying.

When you live long enough in a place it grows on you, makes itself a part of what you are, as in any relationship. Freed from my last obligation to be here, voluntary as the obligation was in the first place, I conscientiously closed a phase in my relationship with Chicago that I’d characterize as alternately cold and batshit. That’s not to say there weren’t good times. It’s saying that if I was to stay the relationship had to change. True to the advice of the relationally battle-weary, if there was going to be a change, it was all on me.

My new year started in June. Part thought experiment, part goal-setting, I laid out the following resolutions.

  • That I should make better use of the place. To start: shifting my circuit of coffee shops, restaurants, and bars to neighborhoods other than the ones I’ve lived and worked in
  • That I should seek out the pleasure and wellbeing I once found in being alone
  • That I should learn better how to decline invitations
  • That I should be more intentional about my use of the internet, quitting the services and accounts I don’t use and curtailing my usage of those that encourage gut reactions and/or feed the manic quantifying-classifying impulses that corrode civil discourse online and off
  • That my enjoyment of books is worth the cost of the books, and that I should buy the ones I want
  • That I should talk about what I’ve read and what I think whether the person I’m talking to has any idea or interest in what I’m talking about
  • That I should call out asshole drivers from wherever I hear their horns blare
  • That I should define and practice an ideal of friendship beyond a casual sharing of time, namely as a reciprocal right to make claims on each other’s time and attention, and draw conclusions about the nature of my relationships based on the acceptance or resistance of this right
  • That I should take every opportunity to draw and paint again
  • That I should find people willing to be looked at long enough for a portrait
  • That even on staying I should get out and see more of the country than I’ve managed to see

Halfway through the arbitrary one-year term of new year’s resolutions things aren’t going too bad.