I was born in 1963 in a suburb of Los Angeles. I remember my parents waking me up to watch the Moon landing in 1969, and I can remember a friend telling me that “The Zodiac” was going to bomb a school bus, though I had no idea what that meant. I was just the right age for Star Wars, which I saw many, many times in the summer of 1977. I learnt Star Trek by heart in syndication, and inexplicably I have tremendous nostalgia for In Search Of . . . .
My dad (figure 1) was 4F, blind in one eye because of a BB gun accident at age ten. He was in any event too young to fight in WWII, and felt left out of what was always for him “the war” and devoted himself to studying it intensely through memoirs. The first music I can remember is him playing the soundtrack to Victory at Sea. I listened to that record until it was dusty and scratched beyond recognition, and this probably explains my predilection for soundtracks even now. And so I picked this up and for many years was enthusiastically interested in that war. I had several ‘Battleground’ army sets by Marx, fueled during play by images from the movie Battle of the Bulge.
My dad’s people were from Omaha and Council Bluffs, and in fact my paternal grandparents’ house, just off California Street, was torn down but would have basically sat under the southern part of Creighton University’s Deglman Hall. My great-great grandfather’s first house sat under what is now the north end of Creighton’s Campion House.
My mom (figures 1, 2) was descended on her father’s side from a member of the minor gentry of Kent, England, the Alston-Holes. She occasionally put on airs on this basis, even though the family lost all of its money in the 1920s. Still, she inherited half of his monogrammed Limoges china and we still possess that. Her father was a rake and a cad named Grendel (figure 1).
My grandmother, Frances Mable Hole (née Ottum: figure 3), was from Grafton, North Dakota, and earned a degree at UND in Grand Forks in 1925-1926 and was admitted to the North Dakota bar that year. She was a free spirit, moving immediately to Los Angeles, where she found herself an assistant secretary to C.B. DeMille. She eventually ended up as the legal secretary of Federal Judge J.F.T. (“Jefty”) O’Connor, and participated (among other things) in the Charlie Chaplin trial of 1944. My grandmother’s free spirit made her in some ways an apt match for Grendel.
My family moved to San Diego in 1970, where I lived until I went to graduate school in 1987. I was lucky, in that although I had missed the golden age of Los Angeles in the 1950s, I was able to experience San Diego’s golden age in the 70s. I went to Saint Augustine High School, graduating in 1981, and thus witnessed the crash of PSA flight 182 early in my sophomore year. Six years at UCSD followed, with Physics and Classics degrees, and then ten years pursuing the PhD in Classics at Brown University.
I spent three of the Brown years overseas in predocs at the American Academy in Rome and the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. These years, particularly the first one, in Rome, were among the most important in my life. Like so many Americans, I had been terrified of speaking a foreign language, but I muscled through that to become a fluent (though not particularly idiomatic) speaker of Italian. I had had a very parochial outlook in San Diego, and probably, looking back, a complacent one, too, but going to Rhode Island and then to Europe for years helped me become a better, more interesting person. It also started me on the Rome-centered path my career was to take.
As with so many of my peers, it was long before I landed a permanent job; in my case, that was as a professor at Creighton University, in Omaha, in 2001. These Wanderjahre coincided with my meeting, and subsequently marrying my wife, Christina Clark (figure 4), in early 1999. It was one of the great fortunes of my life to meet the extended Clark family, whose patriarch, Col. Steven T. Clark, was a man of great intellectual strength and independence, and whose matriarch, Maureen, was and is one of the finest people I have ever met. Unfortunately, my dad, a very heavy smoker, had died of predictable causes in 1997. He at least lived to see me graduate from Brown, though his final crisis overlapped with the fall semester of 1997-1998 where I was a VAP at Gustavus Adolphus College in MN.
I served at Creighton in their Department of Classical and Near Eastern Studies from 2001-2017. I did the usual things professors do for promotion, achieving the final promotion, to full professor, in spring 2016. This coincided with a political fight at Creighton I was involved in, and also my wife’s decision to broaden her horizons by entering administration. As a result, she was hired as Dean of Arts and Sciences at Marymount University in Arlington, VA, in 2016, and we pulled up stakes in Omaha to head to the Old Dominion.
To my great good fortune, the University of Maryland was looking for someone to teach Classics just at the time we moved to the DMV (a regional acronym “District-Maryland-Virginia”). I was hired in 2016, and have taught at UMD since. My deep feelings of gratitude towards the University are not solely conditioned on the convenience of having found a job when I needed one; they’ve also treated me better than any other employer. Most recently, in spring 2019, I taught for the first time an Honors class on the essay genre thanks to my deep interest in the form. This blog also stems from that interest.
After four years as a dean of Arts and Sciences and of Design, Arts, and Humanities at Marymount, Christina felt it was time to make the next step, and was ultimately hired as the provost at Marywood University in Scranton, Pennsylvania, so we pulled up stakes once again and moved north in summer 2020. Scranton is a little neglected in some ways but very comfortable. There is room here, land is cheap, and everything is comparatively relaxed. As I was saying to Christina recently, I loved Virginia, but I’m glad our travels have brought us to this part of the world: it’s very interesting.
Apart from my wife, Christina, I have an 20-year-old daughter Genevieve (figure 6), who graduated from the local Sacred Heart School, Stone Ridge, while we still lived in Arlington. She’s studying in the school of Archaeology, Classics, and History at the University of Edinburgh with special interests in Russian language and modern history.
I’ve reached the point in my life where, barring calamity, I need to start thinking about what I’ll do once I stop being an academic. The younger man in figure 6 is wearing out, even as the baby has become an independent adult. I don’t resent this; my friend Charles often repeated this true mot: “no one gets out alive.”
Speaking of mots, my father-in-law liked this one: “if you are your work, what are you when you retire?” Academia is a vocation, and for many of its practitioners it is totalizing. It certainly was for me until (thanks to my wife’s administrative bravura) I abandoned the tenure track for something else five years ago. The telling cliché is that people (especially academics) too involved in their work go for years without reading a book for pleasure.
I like to laugh too much for that to have been the case with me, but compared to the person I like to be, I was closer to humorless drudgery in Omaha than I’ve been at any point in my life: I felt like I was constantly doing repetitive, remedial, thankless, and ultimately hopeless work to help save a classics department from a philistine administration that had long since made up its mind to abolish it but which lacked the courage to be open and honest about it. The teaching and the students were another matter; they were wonderful.
Not all administrators are careerist philistines, obviously, and I have known good ones, even in Omaha (Tim Austin, Barbara Braden, and Christine Wiseman, I’m looking at you). My wife shows by daily example that a high-level administrator with a soul and humanistic ideals can keep an institution financially viable, loyal to its mission, and faithful to the academic enterprise. For that matter, I myself served for six years as a presidential-level administrator of a small educational institution, and I preserved its soul through the pandemic. But I do now live with a sense that this side of my life is passing even as I continue doing the best work I am capable of for my students at UMD. But the final break is coming.
Photography seems to be the creative outlet I’m looking for, and pursuing it as a vocation certainly takes me to interesting places, or lets me see the mundane spaces I live in with fresh eyes. There is not much distance between the intellectual commitment in research and publishing scholarship on the one hand and in the creation of essays and photographs on the other. I once tried quixotically to get a joint appointment in a visual arts department, but now I am, for better or worse, actually creating art, and I would be dishonest not to admit that this intellectual work is now closer to my heart and more interesting to me than the academic work I used to do. At the very least, it is perhaps therapy as I go through the life change. So thank God for those philistines in Omaha! If not for them I might still be drudging away at my less-than-best life.