The Anniversary of Philosophy

Ten years ago today, I made a decision that would alter everything about my life from that point forward. At the time, I was pursuing two bachelor’s degrees with two minors at CalStateLA. I had been a transfer student and had satisfied all of my general education requirements. However, CSULA’s bureaucracy is notoriously terrible with few exceptions and I had been notified that I would need to satisfy a “critical thinking” requirement. No matter that I had one on my transcript. For the university to be satisfied, I would have to file mountains of paperwork to simply point out what was already there. I decided it would be easier to take some stupid, ten-week, freshman level philosophy class than to bother with the bureaucracy. I did NOT want to take this class. I was a firefighter, a professional in crisis response, I was already working on two degrees and two minors… I had no time to sit around thinking about thinking. I had had bad experiences in high school with a grumpy old man hating that I would question anything in philosophy. Ironically. Still, I registered for the class. Except the night before, I simply couldn’t bear it. I could manage some paperwork. I mean, dumb bureaucracy versus annoying philosophy wasn’t much of a choice, but the bureaucracy seemed the smartest time management choice.

The next day, I was leaving campus, done for the day, when I was stopped dead in my tracks in front of our Confucius statue. Fused to the spot, all I could hear was, “You have to take that philosophy class. You must take that philosophy class.” I don’t know what one ought to believe about this sort of thing, I don’t know what I believe about this sort of thing, but this is a true story. I suppose in the end, I didn’t really make a decision that day at all; I was compelled, irrationally, toward the third floor of King Hall. A quick check of our online system had shown the class was now full; my seat had been snatched up. I was a responsible adult, not some last-minute 18-year-old. I had never needed a professor’s permission to add a class before, I had immediately grabbed my seats the morning of registration days. Hm. Still, I went to the class where there was a grumpy little man furiously scrubbing at the white board. “Uh… Excuse me, professor? Would it be possible to add your class?” He barked at me. “You want to add my class or the next guy’s class?!” “Oh, um, sorry… The next guy.” Thank God. I was once again reminded of my stereotype of philosophers, but whoever the next guy was, he had to be better than this. And he was.

I took a seat and waited. And in he walked, tall and lanky, in an Astros baseball cap and bearing a heavy Texas accent, nothing at all like what I had ever imagined a philosopher to be. A roustabout or a roughneck, maybe a cowboy, but definitely not a philosopher. He was smart, funny, and endearing. Thought was encouraged, but the arrogant questioning by teenagers was not, met with a deadpan drawl, “I’m not even tryin’ very hard to understand what you’re sayin’ right now.” I knew nothing of the lightning bolt that many philosophers experience that begins them on their path, but I was hit with it that day. I also found him, for reasons completely unknown, utterly f*cking terrifying. But I knew I HAD to be in that class. Asking to add gave me chest pain, but he was gracious, took my name, and I was in.

I. LOVED. THAT. CLASS. I loved that class like I had loved no other before or since. I couldn’t wait to get to philosophy. Monday and Wednesday afternoons were the highlight of my week. Walking out on Wednesday into the four-day chasm until Monday was terrible, I couldn’t wait for more. Of course, I still had no idea what was happening. I mean, it was just an awesome class with a really awesome professor, it couldn’t meeeeaaaaan anything. I had plans, work, direction. I had no business in philosophy. This was a one-off; philosophy couldn’t be this cool. In fall, after the class was over, we’d meet for coffee, and one night, he said it: “You know… You’d be good in philosophy.” I laughed immediately. “Oh no, I’m not following you down that rabbit hole!” If there is a hallmark to this relationship over the last ten years, it’s him saying very true things to me and me saying very stupid things in response. I wish I could say this was the stupidest thing I’ve ever said to him. It is, in fact, not. But it ranks up there. Still…

I. Have. No. Idea. Where’d I’d be today without that class or that philosopher. If I had to put money on it, I’d guess I’d probably be dead. When I was slammed with staggering personal losses less than a year after that class, my field, crisis response, offered little solace from the terrible despair. Everything I knew to be true as a subject-matter expert rang hollow. Psychology was worthless. But philosophy? I could turn to it, and it gave me hope. And direction. Over and over again, running back, finding comfort, running off again. But still, I fled to all seven continents avoiding the suggestion that I might be a philosopher. And I ran to campus to see that philosopher more times than I can count. Drawn back, again and again. It was magnetic, my North Star, but I just couldn’t acknowledge the truth of the matter about where I belonged. I’m often mortified now by what a remarkable pain in the ass I must have been to him and eventually around the department as a whole. (Do you like how that’s the past tense there? Like it’s not still true?). I skulked around, showing up in lectures, no one having a clue what the hell I was doing there. But I hope by this point that he’s at least a little fond of me… Or at least the occasional bottle of very fine whiskey I offer as penance for the bullsh*t he puts up with.

I can’t say as I’m a philosopher now. But that’s just because I can’t say it yet. Certainly, others would say so. After finally embracing where I belong, I think I’m on the right path, “budding philosopher” might be acceptable. But actual philosopher? Not yet. Now, the philosophers that I know I have too great a respect for to put myself in their league and call myself “philosopher.” Maybe one day. Regardless, if it weren’t for that day ten years ago, I can’t see as I ever would have gotten to where I belong.

So, this morning, I couldn’t help laugh when I saw an e-mail from the university saying I hadn’t completed the requirements for my masters in philosophy. They are, in fact, all right there on my transcript. But, of course, in classic CalStateLA fashion, some bureaucratic glitch didn’t change a red square to a yellow triangle to a green circle. Despite two graduate directed study units sitting right in plain view on my transcript, the official report says… I’m missing those two units for my degree. I honestly can’t be too upset about it. Maybe this time the university will process the paperwork correctly and my degree will be conferred. Or maybe they won’t and I’ll have to go take “some stupid philosophy class” in fall. As it turns out, that’s worked out pretty well for me.