Applying Myself

Great field trip to Seattle yesterday. Angie’s doing good, back at work today after a week off to heal after her wrist injury. Both of us were sleepy and hungover from the wine at the cheese festival (note: generous pours, for the most part, except for the table of Classic Wines and Terra-something-or-other), and from the drinks we had later. Oy vey.

Tomorrow I head back up to Seattle for my first volunteer shift at 826 Seattle. Looking forward to it!

Today, though.

Today, I’m doing things somewhat in reverse. Instead of a lengthy blog post in the morning, filled with literary sweet-treats or amiable discursions in my rich mental life or musings on my public or social one, I will instead post this little self-motivational piece. Then I will clean the kitchen, which over the course of a week spent on other projects (organizing the office/craft room upstairs, working on the garden, etc) has come to look like a bachelor pad after a party. Please, hold your applause.

After that—and mind you, I’m setting my timer; no more than two hours on said cleaning!—I will tackle the thing that has eluded me for ten years. My whale. My university diploma.

That’s right: the first step in applying to grad school requires that I produce a college degree. And I don’t have one.

I’m not sure how viral that bombshell will go, and I doubt this tidbit of news will make the rounds on Facebook, but I’m embarrassed by it nonetheless.

Let me clarify: I did the coursework to graduate, and was enrolled at UC Berkeley (1996-2000), either full-time or with a signed waiver to take a reduced course load so I could work part-time (or full-time!) throughout my college career. Of course, I’ve always told employers that I had a BA in English from UC Berkeley, and no one has ever asked me to prove it. I could have gotten away with worse. But my conscience is clear, since, as I’ve said, I did the work and showed up to class and finished my assignments. I just never picked up my diploma.

In itself, not a sin, and hardly worth a second thought…BUT…(yes, you knew there was a big “bit” coming)…

All of those semesters taking a reduced course load, taking twelve or thirteen units instead of sixteen, put me under the unit minimum to graduate. I didn’t do the math—most of my friends were stretching out their college lives as long as possible and were hitting the unit maximum, in danger of being booted out on their bums—and I only learned about this status after returning from my second big European adventure, in fall of ’01. I wasn’t quite ready to go get a real job anyway, so I moved back into the student co-ops and enrolled in a few classes at the local community college.

All three of my classes were going to be interesting, I thought: a screenwriting class, a class on California History (taught by Chuck Wollenberg, where I would first become acquainted with Heyday Books), and a creative writing class. But only one of them, I believe, allowed for transfer of credits for UC Berkeley. And I was in a sort of liminal fog, neither a real college student nor a real worker bee yet, so I gradually stopped going to two of the classes. I stuck with the creative writing class.

And here I have to say, it was a great creative writing class, but an introductory one, since that was the only creative writing class offered that transferred for credit at Cal.

Oh man, that writing class. That deserves a blog entry of its own. It was there I met my dear old friend Marley Farley, now McMahon, who is one of the few truly magical people I’ve met, and also Laura Abela, the odd-but-cute Italian musician who claimed to be in Berkeley to record some music (and who I dated for five seconds, and who is now some big pop star in Italy, goes by L’Aura), among other characters.

Anyway, it was supposed to be a simple process: on finishing the creative writing class, my grade would be transferred from the computer system at Vista College to that of Sproul Hall, the administration building at UC Berkeley. I was dumb and didn’t check the requirements: I assumed the process was automatic. Or maybe I willfully stuck my head in the sand. At the time I felt gypped by Cal; it went by too fast, and all four years the University kept me at an impersonal arms-length, with class sizes exceeding 100, even for senior seminars. I hadn’t gotten to know any of my professors—though that was also largely a product of my own lazy studenting.

In short, I had been a lazy student at a huge school that gave more attention to its grad students than its undergrads, and which required a more proactive approach that I was equipped or ready to give.

So: I didn’t check on the transfer of units from one college to the other. I didn’t go to the UCB College of Letters and Sciences to check the status of my transcript. And when I did finally go to Sproul to ask for my diploma, they said they didn’t have it, and to check back with Vista or with Letters and Sciences. I didn’t do either.

I got busy: with work (initially at cafes and restaurants, eventually with publishing houses), with my social life, with dating. I was in that post-college blur that is one’s twenties, and all I knew was that I resented what came before, was nostalgic for the future, and was anything but bored by the present. I just couldn’t be bothered to go back and get that pesky diploma, and it didn’t seem to matter. I had absolutely NO intention of going back to grad school. Not ever. It’s akin to being asked if I ever envisioned myself as the President of the United States or a welfare mother of three: some things just aren’t in the books.

I went from job to job, always stepping up, making a bit more money, a larger network, more professional gratification. I think professional gratification peaked in March 2006—but again, that’s another story. I just didn’t ever need my diploma. I only had to put it on my resume. In Berkeley, diplomas from Cal are like Kleenex. In fact, I remember some graffiti on the bathroom wall in the basement of Dwinelle Hall—a byzantine structure that housed a number of the more esoteric humanities departments—written on the toilet paper dispenser in white paint pen. It said “liberal arts degree, please take one,” pointing to the bottom retrieval area of the dispenser. (I took three, what can I say?).

I tried again, about two years ago, to investigate the status of my diploma. I was living in Seattle and working as a freelance book publicist. I didn’t enjoy it much, but had no concept of the future at that point. I was living the future: this was the culmination. I had finally gotten out of Berkeley, followed my heart up to the cedar-and-fog shrouded Northwest. I left a job that was as through with me as I was of it, and was ready to embrace the future. And for the first time in a long time, I had no idea what that looked like.

I don’t know what possessed me to dig around again for it then. It would be neat to say I had an inkling of going back to school even then, on first moving to Seattle. But the reality is I think guilt and embarrassment motivated me. And I was self-employed now, a professional. I got things done. Having this thing hanging around my neck (or not around my neck, as it were. Or hanging on the wall…oh, whatever, you get what I’m saying) was like having an open sore, a festering scab from a time I was trying to move beyond. I needed closure.

But again, that bizarre and innate laziness kicked in at the first sign of progress. I got a letter back from Sproul Hall saying it had no record of my having graduated, but they had notation that there were still some hold on my degree, some requirement still needing to be satisfied, and to contact the College of Letters and Sciences to investigate. I did that, and found out that my units from Vista College had never transferred.

I technically hadn’t earned my degree.

I called Vista, but in the intervening years they had built a new building—I remember watching it be built, it was just around the corner from where I worked at Heyday Books!—and had a new name (Berkeley Community College) and all new filing. On my first call, they didn’t have my transcripts. But they said to call back, And the woman I spoke to there seemed disinterested in helping me get to the bottom of this.

So I left it at that. At the first obstacle, I abandoned the pursuit.

I regret it. And I intend to make things right. No matter what it takes. If it means that my transcripts are lost to the ages, I will re-enroll in a course this summer at a school that UCB accepts for transferable credit. And if there turns out to be some other obstacle, some statute of limitations whereby I can no longer request a diploma because too much time has passed, then I will re-enroll at an undergraduate college and get my damned BA.

I don’t expect it will come to that. But I may have to take another class. Not the worst prospect in the world. And who knows? I may just find someone on the other end of the line at Berkeley Community College who is willing to treat this as a delightful mystery to be solved, and willing to dig a bit for those transcripts, and help me see to it that they get to the right person at the College of Letters and Sciences. And then that right person at Letters and Sciences will help me deliver them to the right person at Sproul Hall. And I will be absolved.

Like I said, I’m embarrassed by this vestige—no, not a vestige, that’s a cop-out—this reminder—of my own tendency toward inertia and laziness. It’s a weakness I have been fighting every day of my professional life. And with time it has itself grown weak: it’s no longer easy for me to be lazy. I disdain it. But it’s still there in me. And I have to bury this reminder and claim my reward for this degree that has taken me fourteen years to earn.

So: time to clean the kitchen. And then make some calls.


Like a visit to the dentist after a ten year lapse, that wasn’t as painful as I imagined. If all goes well, I should have my degree by the end of this summer.

Berkeley City College (not Berkeley Community College, as I had earlier reported) had record of my satisfactory completion of that creative writing class. UC Berkeley Registrar’s Office had record of that transcript. College of Letters & Sciences had it, too: the only thing they need is for me to file a petition of degree candidacy, and to have the English Department undergraduate major advisor send them a memo of completion. (And I KNOW that I completed the requirements of the English Major!! I think I got a pretty good GPA, too, if I recall.) Anyway, I called him up, and he’ll take care of that for me, even though this week is graduation week and the busiest time of year for him. Mad thanks to Ken Mahru!

Now, just cross your fingers for me that there are no snafus this late in the game. The main thing is that UC Berkeley had the transcript from Berkeley City College, so I won’t need to take another class.



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  1. Zak, I think that you can circumvent the Vista/BCC switchover losses by contacting the Peralta transcript directly, the one that’s located at Laney. That’s where they have everything, everything centralized from all of the Peralta CCD. I’m so positive that you’ll be able to get it taken care of once you get in touch with them. I suspect that you can probably even just call them and have them send a copy of your transcript straight to Sproul and it should all be fixed up in no time. I understand your frustration over all of this though – it makes education feel so *impersonal*…

  2. I had the same problem with my AA. No one at Saddleback ever told me that I needed to fill out a form to get a diploma – i thought it was like high school – you go to graduation and they hand you one. I wasn’t even sure you got an actual piece of paper at that point, and I didn’t much care, that was a formality, really. So, I found out too late. I had to fill it out and get it at the end of the summer. Fortunately, It did not stop my transfer to UCSC.

    Note: Both that and my BA are still in original packaging somewhere and I have no idea what to do with them. If I had a doctorate in awesomeness, I might put it on the wall, I guess, but a stupid AA or BA? Who cares. Mostly they are just more crap that I can’t throw away when I go on mad spring cleaning binges.

    Did you get the Kitchen clean?

    • Maybe you could form a quattrain with that scheme: AA BA. It worked well for Omar Khayyam. Hang that on your wall. No thanks necessary, as an English major I’m just doin’ my job.

  3. Nice. Your literary puns are not lost on me.

    For some reason that word always makes me think of many kumquats hooked together in a line on some rails in the middle of Kansas somewhere…

    • You say kumquat, I say rubaiyat. Do kumquats even grow in Kansas? Wait, I’ll google it…

      No, it doesn’t look like they do. Unless you grow them indoors.

  4. PS: I never went to my NYU or Yeshiva graduations and don’t have either diploma. But i do have a license to do what I do so that should count for something. M

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