When meeting new people we should be able to rely on the kindness of mutual friends to handle introductions and alleviate potential awkwardness. New bloggers have this need too, so I thought I'd rely on a biographic sketch written by my close friend, Theo DeJager.
Unfortunately, I failed to specify that the biography needed to be factual, so please take what follows with a heavy grain of salt. In fact, it is worth noting that this sketch was originally denied publication in a modest little newsletter, partially because the editor believed it stretched the truth a bit too far. In my opinion, it does more than stretch the truth. 90% of it is an outright fabrication, albeit a hilarious one. I won't ruin the fun by exhaustively detailing what parts my biographer got right, however, I will verify just one detail: It is absolutely true that I once had a heartstopping encounter with an adolescent grizzly bear.
I once heard a story of an encounter between a young outdoorsman and a grizzly bear in the wilderness. As the story goes, the young man was out hunting and trapping, and while kneeling down to set one of his traps, he neglected to notice the gargantuan animal’s surprisingly stealthy approach. As the young hunter looked up, he virtually looked straight into the rheumy eyes of a 1000 pound bear, with a head as big as that of a sociologist who’s been published in ASR, and paws the size of pizza boxes (I’m talking Papa John’s extra large….and that’s pretty big!) Instinctively, the hunter froze, inwardly cursing himself for having left his rifle leaning against a rock some yards away. Suddenly, the monstrous bear reared up on its hind legs with a roar, sniffing the air as it extended itself to a height of over 8 feet. Our young hunter remained calm however, realizing that death was imminent should he make one wrong move. He eyed a sapling tree a short distance away, but realized that even with his incredible athletic ability he might not be able to outrun the bear, and even if he did, the tree was so small that the bear would simply pluck him from it like a ripe fruit. There was no escape. He would have to meet the bear’s challenge head-on if he were to survive. Drawing on all his outdoor know-how (Whoever said folk-wisdom wasn’t valuable?) and every shred of courage, the hunter jumped up and lunged toward the colossal bear, shouting and waving his arms wildly. For a moment it seemed as if the bear would simply swat him out of existence with one gigantic paw….but then, with a grunt, the bear retreated and simply meandered away. As the bear walked off, it paused, turned its head, and looked at the hunter; their eyes locked briefly and a tacit understanding passed between them; they were kindred spirits, born to live wild and free.
Who was this young outdoorsman in our story? He was none other than our own dearly beloved colleague, Lester Andrist. Who is Lester Andrist? Many have asked, few have known. You might think you know Lester Andrist, but you don't. Did you know that he had aspirations to play professional basketball? Did you know that he's an accomplished martial artist and cyclist? Did you know that he speaks fluent Mandarin? Did you know that his favorite movies are "Shall We Dance" and "Mad Hot Ballroom"? Did you know that he's a remarkably skilled quantitative methodologist? Chances are you didn't know any of these things, and that's why you should keep reading. Through my friendship with Les (as he's known to his friends), I've gained a unique insight into what makes this complex man tick, and with this biographical sketch I'm going to introduce you to the real Lester Andrist; the man behind the enigma.
Les and his identical twin, Ryan, were born to a large family in the small town of Menominie, Wisconsin. His father, Eddie, was a high school basketball coach, and his mom, Kerry-Sue, was a part-time nurse and stay-at-home mom. The Andrist children were always athletic, particularly the twins, Les and Ryan, who – with the encouragement of their father – both excelled at basketball from an early age. Les’s younger sister, April, proved to be a talented track star, and she would later go on to become a personal trainer to various Hollywood celebrities. The Andrist boys were very competitive, particularly on the basketball court, and their initial rivalry would set the tone of their relationship for the rest of their lives. While very capable on the court, Ryan could never quite match Les’s natural talent, and Les started to distinguish himself from his twin with extraordinary displays of skill and athleticism. Their father, Eddie, soon noticed that Les held some real promise, perhaps even enough to one day embark on a professional sports career, and he consequently started to personally hone the boy’s abilities. Soon young Les found himself traveling various high school basketball circuits around Wisconsin and neighboring Montana with his father, putting on instructional displays of highly technical movements and strategies during coach Eddie’s training sessions. (Years later, Les would attribute a host of physical ailments to the rigors he had to endure during those long, merciless training sessions.) By the time he reached high school, Les was set on pursuing a professional basketball career, but then, during a match against a rival school, disaster struck! While hovering near the basket with his arms raised, waiting to execute his signature move (known as the “Menomonie Sinkhole”) upon receiving the ball, Les’s attention strayed momentarily and he didn’t see the ball traveling toward him at high speed. A split-second later the ball smashed into his upraised left arm, dislocating his shoulder, tearing muscle, and shearing tendons. He crumpled to the floor, barely conscious. Upon subsequent examination, the doctors determined that his shoulder was so badly damaged that it necessitated rather extensive surgery, and hence Les’s dreams of a basketball career evaporated forever. The next few years following this catastrophe were tumultuous, and Les freely admits that his life briefly descended into near chaos because of his own anger and bitterness. The remainder of his time in high school included bouts of depression, excessive drinking, and several run-ins with local law enforcement. One such unfortunate encounter culminated in a late-night pursuit that saw Les fleeing into the darkness at high speed on a motorcycle, and later barely escaping with his life after having crashed into a roadside swamp. It seemed to him that he had yet again cheated death, and this sobering realization gave him pause to reconsider the trajectory of his life. As if awakening from a bad dream, Les understood that he needed to leave Wisconsin with all its childhood disappointments behind, and that he had to venture out into the world to discover (or perhaps to make) his own destiny.
A few months after graduating high school, Les hitchhiked from Wisconsin to the west coast, ending up in San Francisco, where he immediately boarded the first merchant vessel that would give him a job as a deckhand. After several months of cruising the Pacific on the fishing ship Ning-Po (meaning “calm waves”), Les set ashore in Hong Kong, and proceeded to explore this vibrant and bustling city. After having been entirely candid about his childhood, Les seemed strangely pensive and recalcitrant when our interview turned to the topic of his experiences in the Far East. Even to his close friends, these few years seem inexplicably secretive and shrouded in mystery. The following exchange between us, while researching this biographical sketch, illustrates the point:
Theo: “So, Les, in a previous conversation you mentioned that you actually briefly trained with the martial artist and actor Steven Seagal in Hong Kong?”
Les: “Yes. That’s true. He was my sensei for some time.”
Theo: “I heard a rumor that you and Seagal were once involved in a brawl with some gang members in Hong Kong. Can you confirm this?”
Les: “Err….I can neither confirm nor deny.”
Theo: “I see. . . cryptic. You don’t deny however that you once raced against Gary Fisher, the inventor of the mountain bike, in Hong Kong?”
Les: “No, that I won’t deny. He was one tough old dude. Exceptionally spry for a man of his age.”
Theo: “I also heard a rumor that you supported yourself in Hong Kong by working as a male underwear model? Is this true?”
Les: “It is true, sadly. Enough said.”
Theo: “Is it also true that, while living in Hong Kong, you were – for a short time – the proud owner of a mogwai?
Les: “That’s not true at all. Never happened. Don’t believe everything you hear.”
Theo: “OK, whatever. I’m just asking.”
After his time in Hong Kong, Les journeyed onward to Taipei, where he would later meet his future wife, Julie Chang. After the mayhem of Hong Kong, Les was hoping to find some relative tranquility in Taiwan, but, as always, trouble would invariably cross his path, and, as he had done with that grizzly so many years ago, he would meet it unflinchingly. Running low on funds, Les had to resort to staying at various low-rent, fleabag hotels in some of Taipei’s seedier neighborhoods. One late night, while wandering the city streets deep in thought, Les found himself in front of a tavern, and he decided to go inside for a drink. He took a seat at the bar next to a woman and started up a conversation with her, and within a few minutes it became clear that this was in fact no ordinary drinking establishment, but a front for a brothel. Sensing trouble, Les proceeded to get up and leave, only to find his way blocked by the establishment’s irate proprietor, who claimed that he now owed her money after having taken up the time of one of her employees (presumably the woman with whom he had innocently spoken at the bar). Naturally, Les refused to pay, realizing that he had fallen victim to a local scam designed to extort money from unsuspecting tourists by forcing them to buy a preposterously priced $60 “ladies drink.” Upon his refusal, the owner became even more incensed and promptly summoned two muscle-bound characters who appeared to be the establishment’s bouncers. Faced with no possibility of escape, Les acquitted himself efficiently and effectively in the scuffle that followed, making good use of some of the more unusual techniques imparted to him by his erstwhile teacher, Steven Seagal. Needless to say, he left the place without having to pay anything. Although he was enjoying his sojourn in Asia, Les felt restive and unsatisfied, as if his life was somehow undirected and empty, and he therefore decided to return to the States, in the hopes of finding some worthwhile pursuit.
After making it back to America, Les decided to return to Wisconsin, but he eventually ended up in Montana, where he would work as a waiter, a gas station attendant, a donut fryer, and an assistant in a photography studio. Not satisfied with the tedium of service sector work, Les subsequently decided to try his luck on the Montana rodeo circuit, but not before completing a brief stint in the notorious Montana militia, where he was instrumental in drawing up their secessionist constitution. (Ultimately he found secessionist politics to be a dead-end though, and he departed the militia as swiftly as he had joined.) He achieved moderate success on the rodeo circuit, even earning the nickname of “Ponyboy” among his peers, but real success eluded him because he was constantly plagued by his old shoulder injury. After having experimented with a range of potential vocations – and finding them all equally unfulfilling – Les concluded that he needed to go back to school, and he proceeded to enroll in Montana State University’s prestigious film school. (Incidentally, while at film school, Les was contacted by a talent agent who offered him an audition for a small part in “The Horse Whisperer.”) He had always loved the cinema, and he felt confident that a career in film, particularly in directing, would give voice to his creativity. Unluckily, however, this plan would also not come to fruition because, at the end of his first year, Les directed a controversial student production (too explicit to discuss here) that caused him to fall afoul of the narrow-minded institutional authorities. He wasn’t kicked out of the film program, but it became apparent to him that his unique vision would not be accommodated within stale institutional boundaries, and he consequently decided to move on.
Once again searching for something to give meaning to his life, Les’s first encounter with sociology would happen entirely by chance, in a small public library in rural Montana. While casually browsing the stacks one morning, Les happened upon a dusty volume called “The Social System,” by one Talcott Parsons. Intrigued, he checked out the book and took it home, where he read it voraciously. “I immediately loved Parsons’ concise and clear style. . .” he said, “. . .and I found his structural way of thinking quite liberating.” Newly motivated by his discovery of sociology, via Parsons, Les enrolled at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities the next semester and declared sociology as his major. The next four years would be relatively uneventful, and in addition to successfully completing his BA in sociology, Les would get married during this time. After graduation, Les and his wife Julie would move to the DC-area in search of jobs, and Les would ultimately be hired by Westat, a contract research organization based in Rockville, Maryland. At Westat, Les’s amazing mathematical mind would stand him in good stead, and he quickly made a reputation for himself as a precise and meticulous analyst. However, he would soon tire of the mechanistic routine of statistical analysis and he found himself yet again looking toward intellectually greener pastures. Always a man of action, Les applied to the PhD program in sociology at the University of Maryland, and then promptly quit his job at Westat upon receiving notice of acceptance into the program. That very next semester our cohort met for the first time during orientation, we all became fast friends, and the rest is history, as the saying goes. During his time here at UMD, Les has impressed faculty and peers with his quick wit, keen intellect, and incisive commentary. Initially Les worked as a TA for Dr. Smith, teaching one of the undergraduate statistics courses. It is rumored that after observing Les’ statistical acumen for two semesters, Dr. Smith quipped approvingly that “. . .the student has now become the teacher.”
It seems that Les has found his place in the world at last, and in the process has become quite an interesting person. If you pass him on the street or return to this blog, pause for a moment and say hello. Get to know him; I’m sure you’ll be amazed at what you find.
In what follows I’ll be sharing a hint of scandal about my marriage and my wife, Julie. Introductions are an appropriate place to begin. Julie is an educational administrator at a local University and epitomizes the busy DC professional. By day, she is known among her colleagues as a shrewd pragmatist, but this characteristic often lingers into the evening, well after she’s left the office. Also noteworthy is that English is Julie’s third language, and although her command of it is impeccable, she scrambles the occasional idiomatic expression. Her residual professionalism coupled with her dynamic use of idioms led to a recent conversation where Julie expressed her reservations about me sharing the difficulties of my relationship with future colleagues. The conversation was stuffed full of remarks about “contingency plans” and possible “anonymity measures.” She was skeptical of the wisdom behind my consent to write the piece, and pointed out that “If push comes to worst”—a novel combination of the expressions “if push comes to shove” and “if worst comes to worst”—I can always take a leave of absence and live with my mom in Montana until things cool over. She had a point, but in the end, I convinced her the exercise might prove cathartic for me, and who knows, it might be of some benefit to someone else’s relationship. In the end, she consented on the condition that she has editorial discretion.
So I sat down to write and recalled the warnings I had received when after divulging my plan to begin graduate school. A close friend told me plainly that graduate school would likely pose a challenge to my marriage. I believe I was stirring my morning coffee at the workplace lunch counter when it happened and bragging that I would soon tender my resignation for the more noble pursuit of education. His message was that graduate school was a hornet’s nest and that I would need to find balance. Unfortunately this particular friend is a habitual whiner and tends to go through the day hanging his head and shaking it from side to side, as if warming it up to reject the entire day. “Life is a travesty,” he would say. “There is a new outbreak of Ebola in Africa.” “More and more polar bears are drowning.” “Marriage can’t survive graduate school.”
I didn’t take his warning seriously, and anyway, by this time, Julie and I had already transcended a number of struggles together. I’m talking about real epic triumphs, like the time I screamed at Julie for waking me up to change a flat tire. From that argument, I learned to pick my battles. My confidence was also bolstered by my belief that the sum of my experiences as a serial monogamist had prepared me for this single moment in time. I was a gladiator poised to be elevated into the coliseum of graduate school, only superficially aided by a few pulleys and levers. I had my own weapons, and I had honed my own method. This was not going to be a problem.
By 2002, Julie and I had already been in DC for a year, and graduate school was beginning to loom large on the horizon for both of us. Julie had announced that she would soon begin working toward her Ph.D. in education. That year, I remember the theatrical release of the movie “About Schmidt,” starring Jack Nicholson. The previews seemed to loop endlessly for a few weeks, and they always featured Nicholson’s character as narrator. “Helen and I have been married 42 years. Lately, I find myself asking the same question. Who is this old woman who lives in my house?” How I pitied Nicholson’s character, particularly his feelings of unfamiliarity with his partner.
“Of course this baffles me!” I thought, “Unlike Schmidt, I married the right person for the right reasons, and anyway, I know myself! I would never just idly sit by like soggy-shorts Schmidt and play witness to the dismantling of my marriage. The instant I perceived distance, I would bring in the fire brigade. Just as we had in the past, Julie and I would sit down and work to articulate what the hell is going on—name it and banish it from our island!”
But I was soon to learn that the mischievous workings of graduate school are often cloaked. We enter our first year with an unenviable work load, and insurmountable expectations abound. Reasons to forgo such indulgences as stretching the legs, spending time in rooms with windows, and unwinding are easily found. In the beginning the assault is obvious, but soon it begins feeling blunted and appears to fade. I suspect this is because we learn to cope, but it must also be because that which is omnipresent appears mundane, normal and unremarkable. In the same way we fail to notice the buzzing noise of an electrified city or the greenish glow cast by fluorescent lighting, we eventually cease fixating on the effects of our stress and the routines we’ve casually adopted as a means of coping.
Then it happened. For the first time in my marriage, I noticed myself becoming inexplicably resentful about Julie’s allergies. Her quirky penchant for bringing random pamphlets home despite my protest suddenly seemed to be a direct statement about her failing commitment to the marriage. I remember feeling exasperated one evening when she demanded equal space for her own books on our book shelf. “Who is this woman?” There was a malignant dissatisfaction growing within me, and I watched myself—as though a spectator—take it out on Julie. Time spent on classes, getting papers ready for publication, socializing with classmates, and navigating department politics – the cumulative effect of these changes in this new graduate world had the effect of a wayward current. Julie and I had begun to drift apart. Schmitt’s gripe finally made sense.
“Editorial discretion” urges caution at following the narrative any further, but I’ve already shared plenty. What’s imperative of any cautionary tale is that the author state in unambiguous terms precautions one can take or a list of pitfalls to avoid, something akin to “Here are the ten things I did to survive a night floating in the Atlantic with sharks nipping at my heels.” Ten tips to save your relationship while in graduate school would be admirable, but I’m partial to the humor of a good anticlimax so I offer only one.
Most enduring relationships require a measure of time and attention; yet graduate school nibbles away at the graduate student’s schedule like pez, and it liquefies the grey matter involved in attention—like the brain-on-drugs egg in those commercials from the Reagan administration. Aiming for balance, people attempt to schedule time for their relationships, but once classes begin, time slips away and they feel they’ve lost their balance. I think we should dispense with this notion of balance. The metaphor suggests a teeter-totter or seesaw held level by two discrete entities of equal weight. Eight hours of graduate school is answered with eight hours devoted to relationships. Thinking about these spheres as separate and balanced is inaccurate and unhelpful. The distinction between what is work and what is personal often collapses, especially when important relationships are formed with one’s classmates and professors. Thinking in terms of balance is also a problem because it encourages us to regard our relationships as entities opposed to work. We are enticed to cultivate our careers and relationships as though they were distinct spheres, hermetically sealed from each other. In building our careers we exit our relationships.
The gravity well that is graduate school makes all this talk about striking a delicate balance sound a bit disingenuous. We would do well to forget balance, and instead allow or even encourage our relationships to be folded into graduate school’s gooey goodness. To this end, baking metaphors might be more useful. This integration of spheres will likely look different for different people, but for Julie and I, it has meant that we recognize scheduling evening time will not always be enough. To keep our lives integrated, I’ve begun attending more of her professional conferences, and for her part, she has begun hanging out with my graduate friends more often. I’ve learned far more about the field of education than I care to, and she’s learned to navigate conversations marked by frequent self-reflective, Goffman-esque comments about the conversation (lol, snort).