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  • Ken Ilgunas


I thought about writing “Kids, I have candy” on the side of my van, but I figured that would get me in a lot more trouble than just illegally sleeping in campus parking lots.

Instead of handing out candy, I went to two Halloween parties this past weekend.

The first was at my travel writing professor’s house with a guest list dominated largely by people older than me. Predictably, I dressed as Henry David Thoreau.

No need to point out the pitiful state of my neckbeard—I only had a week to grow it out.

I presumed that I had the best “literary costume” award locked up but I got shown up by someone dressed as Edgar Allen Poe. I carried a leatherbound notebook and had my mom ship up my clothes from when I wore only 1700’s period outfits for a summer. I was probably 100 years behind the fashion of Thoreau’s day, but I didn’t think anyone would know any better.

Ordinarily, I avoid parties altogether. Because I have the dance moves of a cinderblock and the social awkwardness of someone who’s spent his childhood locked in a damp basement, interacting with large groups of people can sometimes be daunting.

This time, though, I made a point to be gregarious. And opening up about the van has helped foster engaging discussions, considerably. More than I ever would have thought, people love hearing about the van, bear encounters, and tales of hitchhikes. I think that’s largely because discussions in academia can oftentimes become esoteric to the point of incomprehension. I’ve found that there’s nothing better than a story of a face-to-face grizzly encounter or throwing up in a van to bring the conversation back down to earth.

I went to another party with the graduate chemistry department. (I joined their intramural dodgeball team this past semester because my department didn’t have one.) I gave four of them a tour of my van before we went to a bar.


I don’t know the people in this picture too well. The guy on the right, Mr. T, was particularly enamored with my van, given his evident fondness for The A-Team. In a couple hours, alcohol would reduce his IQ to that of a babbling lobotomy patient. The guy toward the left complained about paying $1,900 a month for living expenses. He said he has no idea where his money goes, despite having spent nearly $100 on his costume and $20 on a belt buckle alone.

To go on an aside:

Let me just say that I’m happy I’m not in a chemistry PhD program, a physics, or even in a PhD program studying a subject I’d actually enjoy studying. My mere 2.5 year master’s program seems like a long commitment, yet these people have to go to school for five straight years, summers included, with noses stuffed in books for practically every waking hour. Almost all dreams and desires must be postponed. And they’re miserable. Well, maybe not miserable, but they’re certainly not happy.

I too believe in striving for something bigger than yourself that doesn’t result in immediate gratification, (such as stretching the bounds of knowledge in a doctoral program), but their uncertainty and ambivalence about what they were doing was palpable. And it was saddening. It was as if they were living inside one of their chemistry formulas: that five years of struggle and sacrifice will somehow make happiness the same way two H’s and an O make water.

They look upon life without skepticism and creativity, enrolling in grad school because it seemed like the right thing to do or because it was the best option at the time. Many of our (often long-term) decisions are made with these same thoughts in mind. I did the same thing. Years ago, I applied for ten PhD history programs, not because that’s what I thought I was meant to do, but because it was my best idea at the time. Thank god I was embarrassingly underqualified and got rejected from every single one. My life, before I reentered college last semester, wouldn’t have nearly been as fun, interesting, and educational as it has been in a far larger classroom: the world at large.

Wasn’t this entry supposed to be about Halloween?

Anyway, they loved the van. The girl in the middle called me her “hero” and I caught the one on the left looking at me with googly eyes, which I doubt had anything to do with the neckbeard. The van, to them, wasn’t just a van; it was the embodiment of all their wildest dreams that they’ve “put on hold.” It was a momentary glimpse at the freedom they surrendered long ago. It was, I hope, a reminder that a dream on hold will always be just a dream.


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