Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Brendan’s PhD Graduation Celebrations

Entry for 18 May 2009:

Because we were in the process of moving from Los Angeles to Toledo, Ohio, I didn’t go to my own PhD graduation in 1978. So when our oldest son, Brendan successfully defended his PhD dissertation last September, I assumed that that I wouldn’t be going to his either, especially as it conflicted with the BACP Research Conference. However, Brendan loves rituals and so when I got my submission for the research conference turned down, I took this as a Sign that I should go to Brendan’s graduation. I moved a couple of things around and managed to squeeze a week’s annual leave into my mid-May schedule.

Brendan did both his undergraduate and graduate work in computer science at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. He has been fascinated by computers from childhood, when we used to play computer games together, including Ultima 2 and the old King’s Quest games from Sierra On-line. One thing led to another and he ended up going into computer science as an undergrad and eventually as a PhD student. Along the way, he acquired an interest in Japanese language and culture, as a needed balance for the computer science.

Our celebration of his PhD graduation turned into a 4-day extended event:

Last Tuesday, two days after coming back from EFT teaching in the Netherlands, I flew back through Amsterdam on my way to Detroit. By the time Diane and Kenneth picked me up from the airport, I was somewhat droopy: Not only had I worked a 12-hour day on the Monday, but I’d gotten up at 4.30am in Glasgow, only to be confronted by a slow leak from the ceiling of the bathroom in our flat. (I woke up my upstairs neighbor to investigate the leak, and then woke up Diane, so she could phone the letting agency once they’d opened.) I was grateful when, on arriving in Toledo, Diane and Kenneth took me off to the Olive Garden and fed me salad and lasagna.

Day 1: After a day of semi-recovery, we picked up Brendan and Mayumi very early Thursday morning off the red-eye flight from Seattle. We all went home and crashed for several hours, before getting up and going out for a long walk around Secor Metropark, one of Toledo’s many large country parks. It had rained heavily the day before, but the day was warm, the creek was full of brown, muddy water, and the mosquitoes were already out. After this, there was nothing for it but to go for ice cream. Then, to work off the ice cream, we went to the Barnes & Noble, where I found books for my kids to give me for my birthday. After that, it was time for dinner at Jing Chuan, our favourite Toledo restaurant, where we were greeted warmly by Karen, one of the owners. Finally, as we were driving home, on an impulse, we stopped by the Game Room, the local gaming and comic store that we have been going to for at least 10 years, now moved into a much larger building down the street from the old place. Amazingly, the parking lot behind the new store was full of cars and the place was packed out with 40 or 50 avid board, role- and card gamers, many times more than we had ever seen at the old place. By this means, we accomplished in one rather intense afternoon and evening all the main activities that we normally do in a much longer visit.

Day 2: Another gorgeous May day. Kenneth and I got up early and went for a run, then we all drove to Cleveland for Brendan to pick up his academic regalia, meet with his advisor and collect the photo server computer from his advisor’s lab. While Brendan and Mayumi ran their errands, Diane and I hung out with Kenneth at the flat that he’d just moved into the previous week. We met then up with three of his and Mayumi’s closest friends from Cleveland, Peggy (his favorite Japanese teacher), Matt and Toyomi, at a Turkish restaurant, where we ate and talked outside as dusk gradually descended, drinking Turkish wine and finishing up with baklava and apple tea. Finally, we drove back to Toledo, arriving about midnight.

Day 3: After sleeping in, we went out and shopped for the party that Brendan had organized at our house for that afternoon. A fine collection of Brendan’s old school friends began arriving, beginning with Tim and Bill (and Bill’s partner Gina), with whom he’d gone to primary school. More friends arrived: Becky & Josh; Dan & Debbie; Brendan’s old journalism teacher, Shawn Prephan; Sarah, an old sort-of girl friend, and her partner Bobby, whom most of us had never met, also showed up. The house was full of Brendan’s friends, just like the old days, talking, joking, eating pizza and snacks. I put on my Dance playlist of party music from all over the world, and we all settled down to a long afternoon and evening of talking. Brendan was very proud of his blue academic robe, his hood, and his tam, so he put them on, and people took countless photos of him with various combinations of friends and family. I spent a long time talking to Shawn, who had taught both of our kids, as well as most of the young adults at the party; as always, he was intense, passionate and full of amusing and thought-provoking stories. It was his birthday (we sang to him), but he’d chosen to spend it here hanging out with Brendan, his friends and us, so we felt honoured as well as entertained. Finally, realizing that we were going to have to get up at 4am the next morning in order to drive back to Cleveland for actual graduation ceremonies, we shooed our guests out the door, cleaned up, and fell into bed, exhausted and satisfied.

Day 4: Somewhat bleary-eyed, we left for Cleveland before dawn, arriving in time to drop Brendan off to get organized for the graduation procession while we had a belated breakfast. There then followed a series of multiple ceremonies and receptions, starting with a general convocation, with grand procession etc. This was followed by two receptions, one put on by the graduate school, and the other by Brendan’s department. Meral, his advisor, showed up partway through the latter and we had a lovely visit with her; we were impressed by the genuine affection she has for him and understood how well she’d taken care of him and guided him through his graduate work.

A high point of the day was the Graduate Studies graduation, where masters and doctoral graduates were recognized: Families were encouraged to walk across the stage with their graduate son/daughter/partner/parent. Kenneth and Mayumi were a little too shy for this, so they stayed back to take photos, but Diane and I were up for it, and lined up with him, following him as he was announced, hooded by Meral and congratulated, along with us. While most graduates didn’t opt for this, many did, some bringing along their extended families (an Ethiopian physics PhD had 10 people in train). We wouldn’t have missed it for the world, because it really is true: It takes a family -- or sometimes even a village – to raise a PhD student!

But that wasn’t the end of the celebration; there was one more piece of business: Kaiwa Club, the Japanese culture and conversation club that Brendan went to for all 8 years of his time at Case, and where he and Mayumi met each other. A large group of their friends showed up at the old Arabica Coffee House, practicing their Japanese or simply visiting with one another. Diane, Kenneth and I went for a walk around the north side of campus, past the sprawling complex of the Western Reserve Historical Society museum where Kenneth will be working this summer (instead of coming to Scotland), past the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland and other such places. After Kaiwa Club, most of the crowed decamped to a favourite Chinese restaurant near the lake, a bustling, chaotic place, where our group of 16 was eventually squeezed around a very large table, and talked excitedly for hours.

At the end, we discovered that we were a bit short of cash and asked Brendan and Mayumi if we could borrow enough to pay for our share. Instead, Mayumi invoked the Japanese custom of “First Salary”, whereby children use their first regular paycheck to take their parents out for dinner. Clearly, some tipping point had been reached in our relationship. At last we staggered out, got into our car, and drove Kenneth back to his apartment, leaving him to his new independence. By this time, we were unbelievably tired, but we somehow managed to make it back to Toledo.

Diane and I dropped Brendan and Mayumi off at the Detroit Airport this morning, and they headed off back to their new life in Seattle, where Mayumi does oncology nursing and Brendan works for Microsoft, helping them get Windows 7 ready for launch later this year. We’d finally managed to make it through the entire crazy 4-day rite of passage, and were now ready for some serious down time. Instead, we hung out north of the airport for a couple of hours, had a nice lunch at an excellent Lebanese restaurant… and Diane dropped me off to catch my flight back to Glasgow. It was worth it, to see both of our kids and our daughter-in-law well-launched into the next phase of lives. I might have missed my own PhD graduation, but I am very grateful to have been part of Brendan’s!

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