Sauron’s ring had nothing on mine.
Both were made of gold, but a Dark Lord forged the Hobbit’s, and a loving dad bought mine. Still, it burned just the same.
One of the joys of a long writing career is that ambition gives way to wisdom. I’ve always believed in honesty and transparency, but those commitments deepen as age weathers the ego.
But the ring — even in a desk drawer, tucked in a box — mocked all that.
The tradition began with my grandpa, who gave the first of his four sons a ring for finishing college. The eldest was on the hook for the next brother, and on it went, only the baby escaping the obligation. The brothers continued the tradition with their kids.
My dad faced no such claim for many years. There’s a line in “Animal House” where Bluto mutters disgustedly, “Seven years of college down the drain!” It made me laugh —ruefully. My college career spanned eight years and two schools.
I’d started at my mom’s alma mater in New York, but discovered a private college full of New Yorkers sucked. I hated the college cloister, and even in the ‘70s, loathed the loans my parents and I piled up.
After 18 months waiting tables, I settled on a solution: a good public university in a big city where I could work and not borrow. I looked at UCLA and the University of Washington, but settled on Minnesota, largely because it tolerated part-timers.
That selling point is no more, a victim of college rankers and grant funders who frown on anything that hurts the graduation rate. But I wonder how many talented Twin Citians were drawn here because a high-quality school was unusually flexible.
Given my phlegmatic attendance, my senior year stretched into a biennium. I was set to graduate after summer session 1985. One last foreign language course, and one last elective.
But that spring, an occasional gig at the Twin Cities Reader became a regular one. My writing life was blossoming at age 26; college could wait a little longer, possibly forever.
This isn’t the sort of news one broadcasts to one’s parents. I returned home that August to a well-intentioned but horrible development: Dad bought the ring.
Aside from dumping the same nice girl twice, driving blind drunk at 19, and picking stupid fights with my wife and kids, I’ve led a decent life. Was I afraid to disappoint my parents? I’d like to believe that, but I was probably too proud to tell the truth. A moment of cowardice begat decades of shame.
I put the ring on that day, but never wore it after that. In those first months, Dad might’ve asked me why it wasn’t on, and I mumbled some excuse about not wearing jewelry every day.
Over the years, I had a recurring nightmare: an erroneous transcript forced me back to high school, a grown man in a class of kids. It’s not an uncommon dream, but I knew the source of mine.
Despite that, the lie didn’t dominate my waking life. I told my wife shortly after getting married, and my kids knew fairly young. But I could never screw up the courage to come clean to my parents or my sister, who took years to get her own degree but was at least honest about it. Whenever I stumbled across the ring box, I felt the sadness.
The cure came, ironically, when I got really sick two years ago. Recovery left me unwilling to gobble the kind of stress that had fueled my maniac productivity. Shorn of a key professional attribute, I found myself pondering a career refresh.
My mind drifted to some sort of educational fellowship, only to be jolted by the pang of unfinished business. My parents were in their 80s; there was a deadline to make things right. So I booked a flight to Tucson.
The third morning at the breakfast table, I found my confession tumbling out. My mom exclaimed, “Really?” and my dad, after a moment to soak it in, simply said, “You’ve tortured yourself more than we ever could.”
They were the same supportive people who hadn’t pressured me about my college wanderings three decades earlier. I found myself their child again, inventorying the lessons learned with parents who knew I had to learn my own lessons, however belatedly. We even chuckled at my sister’s reaction (“You mean I was the one who graduated first? All those years they gave me grief about not graduating from college like you?” she snorted. “At least you had to buy me the ring.”)
After I returned home, I took the ring out of its box and slid it on my finger for the first time in 28 years. My finger promptly turned blue — not because of demonic possession, but because the damn thing is now two sizes too small.
Three months ago, I applied for readmission, and today marks my first First Day of School since the Reagan administration. (Am I nervous? Yes.) This time, blogging will pay the freight. I’m hoping some slapstick reports will at least entertain, and maybe inspire a few people who’ve wavered about going back to give it a shot. In any event, the ring no longer pulses dark, and I intend to flash it on graduation day.