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William Baeck: Writing & Photography




Aline was the first to see that we needed an outlet that stimulated instead of anesthetized us. On a hallway Thursday, she revealed The Plan, Part One: Happiness through Overachievement.

It started with her mentioning, as casually as wives do, words that seemed calm on the surface but hid their undertow: “I’m thinking of joining the MLA.” This, I assumed, meant signing up for a type of Liberation Army.

“What’s that?” I asked, wondering how she’d look in camouflage and concerned that her Irish skin burns easily in both jungle and desert.

“It stands for the Master of Liberal Arts program. It’s a multi-disciplinary graduate degree program at Stanford University.” I was caught, feeling myself being pulled out to the sea of her intellectual voyage.

“Stanford? University?” OK, no Tamil Tigers. That was good. But I suddenly saw us switching to a single-income household while she went back to school. A Very Expensive School. That was bad. Not fighting-Tamil-Tigers-bad though, and that was something at least. But in that slow instant while I watched her pupils narrow I knew that my next words would define me for years to come. “That’s…great,” I said, manfully winching up both sides of my mouth into a smile. “You could quit work and get a Master’s degree.”

She smiled. I relaxed. The tide had calmed.

“No, that’s the thing,” she replied. “You don’t have to quit work. It’s designed for people who work full time. You go at night. And it’s really cheap, about twelve grand for the whole program, so you don’t go broke attending.” Maybe she shouldn’t have have kept saying the word “you.” Three times she said it and it was like Macbeth’s witches winding up a charm. Suddenly it seemed that if I wasn’t fighting the Tigers, I should think about joining too.

Really, I had no interest in participating in the program. But I also had a dog’s desire not to be left behind. I could see her leaving each night for school while I sat on the front porch, looking fondly after her and wondering who would feed me dinner.

So Aline dedicated herself to the project and applied. Being less willing to commit than she was I asked if she’d mind me sending in an application form just for fun, to see what happened. “Not at all,” she demurred. My application went in. She wrote the three essays required to accompany the application. I figured, “why not?” and wrote three essays too. We each begged letters of reference from people who had impressive credentials and might like us, transferred copies of our school records, and sent in our bios and curriculum vitae. That should have been a clue—even their resumes sounded like it would kill us in Latin. It looked a lot like I was applying as well.

Several weeks later two big envelopes arrived. It struck us both right around then that we didn’t mind if I didn’t get in and she did. And we would be ok if we both didn’t get it. But it would be just awful if she didn’t get in and I did. It meant a lot to her, whereas I was just along for the ride.

But they were both letters of acceptance. And for the next five years we went to work during the day and school at night. I learned about ancient Mesopotamia, the search for life in the cosmos, environmental ethics. I played King Lear in Shakespeare class and explored da Vinci’s interest in everything. I studied human rights, global peace, and Egypt in 2,000 BCE. It was the most intellectually challenging and stimulating time of my life. My Master’s degree would cost me $12,000 but according to the Stanford criteria, when I finished I would be smart.


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