What It’s Like To Graduate – Winter Commencement 2009


I Came, I Saw, I Walked.

Yesterday was Winter Commencement at UMBC; in a bit, I’ll give you a window into my experiences there. But first, I want to back up a little bit, because I need to make mention of one of the neat perks of graduating: people are very happy for you, and glad to show it. For the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing congratulations from many family and friends, and getting nice surprises, such as what was waiting for me Tuesday inside my office:

Here’s a close up of the greeting card and treats that Anna and Barb lavished me with:

I also want to thank my good friends and co-workers at the Department of Information Technology who so readily took up my cause when I was in search of an extra ticket for my mother-in-law. Sandy Campbell at Institutional Advancement told me that I must have a lot of friends at IT, because she received many calls on my behalf. In the end, everyone was able to see me graduate in person, and I feel fortunate and grateful to be able to work with such good friends.

With the extra seat having been secured, all that was left to do was graduate.

On Wednesday, the first thing I noticed when I got to UMBC were the many very visible traffic control stations.

The second thing I noticed was lots of signage – everywhere.

If you couldn't land tickets to get inside the RAC, you could watch Commencement on television in a Lecture Hall. I've been assured that this is a great experience, but I can't help but feel that it must be a bit surreal.

If you get your picture taken with True Grit early, there are no crowds to fight.

Graduates were directed to the basement of Sondheim Hall, a foreboding place to which I had never before been.

Once I got down there, I noticed that each major was posted on the wall of the hallway, and we were directed to gather in front of ours.

Slowly, the hallway began to fill up, and we were directed to arrange ourselves alphabetically within our major, as this is the way we would enter the RAC.

Helpful UMBC staffers walked up and down the hallways, shouting instructions.

Those students with names that might cause a reader to stumble had their names written phonetically on their yellow cards. We were told to hold onto our yellow cards as if our lives depended on it, and then give it to someone on stage just before we walked.

Front

At about 9:45, we began moving, and I expected that we would have to go outside. Not so! I had no idea that there was a tunnel connecting the basement of Sondheim Hall with the RAC, but there it was. I felt like I had been granted some secret knowledge because of my status as a graduate.

We processed in to the “Prince of Denmark March,” by Jeremiah Clarke. I was expecting “Pomp and Circumstance,” of course. When we got to our seats, we found this program waiting for us:

That's me on page 21!

The first thing all of us did upon entering the RAC was to scan the crowd wildly trying to figure out where our family and friends were seated. For the longest time, I couldn’t find mine, and then I saw why – they had somehow secured seats in the first row on the floor, in a place where I would literally walk right next to them as I went to the stage. From my angle, they had been screened by the graduates in front of me, but I was happy to see that they had gotten such good seats.

A large black curtain had been raised at the end of the basketball court as a backdrop to the stage; it was wide enough to fill in the area between the basketball championship banners and as tall. In front of it was the UMBC lettered logo. On the stage itself were banners representing each of the university’s colleges, and there were chairs from one side to the other to accommodate the many dignitaries. In the center of the stage was the main podium, with two smaller flanking podiums on either side. On the second floor, at the railing next to the track, an announcer acted as Master of Ceremonies during the processional.

After we were at our places, the faculty and administration processed in. The regalia worn by many of them seemed straight out of Tudor England, or at least Harry Potter.  UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski was his usual chatty, upbeat self as he entered the arena. Almost as soon as we had been seated we had to rise and remove our very carefully placed caps for the National Anthem, performed by Casey Hively, the sole graduate on hand from the Music Department. After this, there were various greetings from dignitaries, and then a fairly short address by President Hrabowski, which mainly focused on the diverse stories of those graduating. I continued to clutch my yellow card tightly, remembering the admonishments of the staff back in the basement of Sondheim Hall.

Soon the graduates were being called to the stage, by individual colleges (i.e. College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences) and then by majors within those colleges. Staffers acting as ushers told each row when to rise and go forward, and wouldn’t you know it? Some unlucky Jonah two rows in front of me lost his precious yellow card! Staffers frantically tore through programs looking for the card, but to no avail. Regardless, he went to the stage, had his name called and got his handshakes like everyone else. Yes, that’s right, there’s no diploma given on stage, or even rolled up piece of paper – just a handshake from Dr. Hrabowski (which is still pretty cool).

That's me, almost to the stage.

This is me almost to the stage. Note the magical yellow card in my right hand.

Collecting my well-earned handshakes.


After handing in the yellow card and getting your hand shaken repeatedly, you’re done and it’s back to your seat. As we returned, we were given these lovely parting gifts form the Alumni Association:

How to live in the Grown-Up World manual. Over 180 pages of helpful tips for young graduates. Most of these principles I have already violated countless times.

Inside the envelope on the left was the brochure on the right.

The inside of the brochure.

After getting back to our seats, all that was left to do was to listen to the other graduates’ names being called, taking note of the occasionally wild outbursts from some particularly exuberant families. One group in the bleachers was waving an Angolan flag.

After everyone had been called, Dr. Hrabowski spoke for just a few more minutes, admonishing us to savor these moments, as it “doesn’t get any better than this.” After this, we stood and sang the Alma Mater and then the administration, faculty and finally we, processed out, in our case back through the tunnel to Sondheim.

Moving back through the tunnel.

Breaking out of Sondheim Hall into the cold air and bright sunshine.

Once outside, the challenge became finding one's family amidst the crush of people.

True Grit was a convenient place to tell your people to meet you.

After my family finally fought their way through to me, I posed for my UMBC portrait:

True Grit & Me

After getting my picture taken, we gathered for a celebratory lunch. By the time I got home, I already had an email from the professional photographer, offering to sell me a package of photos for $80 or perhaps $150; I could also purchase a DVD for $45. I expect to soon receive my first fundraising letter; that’s when I’ll know for sure that I’ve graduated.

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The Christmas Blizzard of 2009 at UMBC – A Pictorial

This weekend’s major snow event buried UMBC – but not so much as to keep campus from opening. Here are some images from this morning:

This is what I woke up to Sunday morning:

It’s Christmastime at UMBC! (A Pictorial Essay)

And you thought it was the Christmas season!

Outside of the Math Psychology Building

In the lobby of the RAC

At the Commons

Outside the University Center

Seen all over campus

The UMBC Bookstore:

The Yum Shoppe

The College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences - 1st Floor UC

Through the window of the ELC

A successful 2009 Maryland Charity Campaign

At the Skylight Lounge:

The OIT Help Desk Christmas Party:

I’m a Mac; No, I’m a PC; No, Wait…

The Help Desk gets phone calls occasionally from Mac users, and this is an area where I have little practical experience. So, last week, hoping to make myself a more well-rounded Help Desk Support Staffer, I acquired my first Mac.

My first assignment was to do a clean install of the new Snow Leopard operating system. I’ve done hundreds of operating system installs in my life from Windows 95 to Linux Fedora 12, so I figured that installing a Mac OS from a disk would be no big deal. I was wrong. The entire process, from the keyboard shortcut that enables the Mac to boot from disk, to the not-very-intuitive partitioning process, was so alien to me that I ended up having someone from Desktop Support just do it for me. Linux looked much easier to install, and that’s saying something.

Once the OS was installed, then I had to download a few updates and reboot a couple of times. The Mac’s reboot process was fast, so this ended up being no big deal. Next, I installed Microsoft Office for Mac 2008, which took almost as long as did the OS install. After that was done, I set up Apple Mail, which was easy, since the icon (a postage stamp with an Eagle on it) is on the Dock at the bottom of the screen, and the two or three settings are the same as in any other mail client. Finally, I was ready to use my Mac.

Almost all of the work I do is through systems that are accessed by a web browser, in this case Apple’s Safari, which reminded me a bit of the Google Chrome browser I had been happily using on my PC. Safari is fast and has the thumbnail collage view of recently visited pages and bookmarks that I’d come to rely on in Chrome.

I quickly discovered that Internet Explorer keyboard shortcuts mean nothing in Safari; in Safari, F5=Command+R, for example. Also, when a word is misspelled, I was used to using my right-click function to access the auto-correct; in Macville, this is done by Ctrl+left-click. This is where I made a neat discovery, which was that the Mac/Safari tricks worked on Chrome! One thing I don’t like about Safari (or Firefox for that matter), is that the address in the address bar doesn’t highlight with just one click. This means that if I want to enter a new address, I have to drag the cursor across the address; if the address if terribly long, this might require multiple attempts. (In Chrome, the address bar doubles as a Google search bar, too.)

I haven’t had to use Word for Mac much, but so far, I’m not impressed. At first glance, almost all of the radio buttons I’d come to depend on in the Windows version is gone. After a little exploration, it looks like the functionality is there, but it’s just inconvenient to access. Perhaps after I get used to it, I’ll find that it’s no different, but for right now, it’s awkward.

I really like Apple Mail. It’s easy to use, it highlights messages that are associated with each other (Re: ‘s) and when you send a message, it makes a cool “whoosh” sound. When a message arrives, there’s an audible alert and a number (representing unread messages) appears over the postage stamp icon.

Another big plus with the iMac is the coolness factor. When you hide a window, the window seems to be vacuumed into the dock, where a tiny image of the window remains visible. Also the screen is bigger and brighter than my PC’s, with a built-in webcam that takes still photographs with a pre-installed program. The dashboard (represented by the black circle icon second from the left of the dock) is a neat feature, especially if you find yourself using the calculator a lot.

Clicking the dock icon makes the dashboard appear; clicking anywhere outside of one of the four apps makes it vanish.

The mouse is a bit strange. It feels small, and not having a right-click button takes some getting used to. The keyboard I am not in love with. It’s like an abbreviated version of a normal keyboard, and most notably lacks the numeric keypad that I’ve grown dependent on.

One thing that is very nice about the Mac is that there’s no tower for me to knock my knees against. Everything is self-contained behind the monitor, including the CD drive, and the only cords leaving my desk area are the power cord and the ethernet cable, which means there is very little wasted space.

So far, I really like the iMac, although some things have to be relearned and will take some getting used to. Of course, I wonder if I like it so much that I’d be willing to spend an extra $700 on it in the real world. Probably not, but that’s one of the perks of working in IT, right?

I’m also wondering whether, as a Mac user, I’m required to grow a “cool-guy” half beard, like Justin Long.

Justin Long - He's a Mac

Winter Commencement, Regalia and The Mad Scramble for Graduation Tickets

In less than two weeks, I will publicly receive my undergraduate degree in History from UMBC. I officially graduated in August, and my diploma came in the mail in October, so, yes, to some degree (no pun intended), this event will be anti-climactic.

Still, I figured, why pass up a chance to celebrate one last time? It’s also a celebration for my wife and children, who had to endure the not-so-slight inconvenience of Dad returning to college. After a day of teaching History at Cardinal Gibbons School, rather than return home, I would head to UMBC for class. For me, taking classes was, for the most part, a blast. I loved my History classes, enjoyed my other Humanities classes and tolerated well the other GFRs. For them, it was a family often short one person.

Because they shared in my burden, it’s important that my wife and three children also share in the public culmination of that achievement. I would’ve liked for my parents to have been there also, but my father died seven years ago, and my mother’s back won’t allow her to sit through the ceremony (we’ll pick her up afterwards for the big-deal restaurant lunch we have planned). My mother-in-law, who I am very close to, also wants to be there, and I’d like her to be there too. This, however, is a problem.

If your commencement from UMBC is this Spring, it will be held at the 1st Mariner Arena (capacity 13,500). If your commencement is in December, it will be held in the Retriever Activities Center (capacity 4,000). This disparity in available seating creates a scarcity in graduation tickets, with each graduate receiving four tickets only. If you were doing the math one paragraph above, you now know my dilemma. I need one more ticket. (The university offers overflow seating in Lecture Hall III, where those voted off the island will have to watch by closed-circuit broadcast, but this is hardly an acceptable option for just one family member.)

The four tickets I was issued

Obviously, I’m not the only person with this problem. Apparently there are so many graduates looking for tickets that the university has set up a bulletin board outside of the Bookstore. Here you can pin your desperate plea for extra tickets, in much the same way that prayers are inserted in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

The Board of Faint Hopes

That's mine, right under the sign

(If anyone knows a December graduate with a ticket to spare looking to make an easy $20, please let me know.)

Also, I get a commencement pass of my own:

Front

Back

Another part of the commencement experience is the regalia. The regalia I’ve been given comes with a long black gown, a gold sash (signifying that I’m graduating with Honors), a tassel and a really strange cap. I’ve already tried on the cap at home, and there’s absolutely no way I can wear this cap without looking like a twit. I can’t figure out how the tassel is attached, or where it hangs.  As you can tell, I’ve never worn regalia.

My sixteen-year-old son Zachary is an excellent amateur photographer (he’s been published in multiple newspapers) and he’ll be bringing his good camera to the ceremony. I’ll also make my guests patiently wait so that I can have my picture taken with True Grit. (Again, how many times in my life will I get to do this?)

After that, we’ll head to my car (I’ll use student parking, since I have a student pass due to my Graduate Student status), pick up my mother and then it’s off to The Olive Grove in Linthicum, which has become the traditional celebratory restaurant for our family.

While we’re there, I’ll be preoccupied examining the digital photos on Zachary’s camera to see how idiotic I looked in that funky cap.

Top Ten Not-To-Be-Missed Christmas Shows

There are plenty of Christmas television specials and movies out there; how do you decide which ones to watch? Well, here are the ones I stay home for:

10. Elf – One of the few Will Ferrell movies I can sit all the way through. It’s cute, it’s funny, and Bob Newhart plays Papa Elf. Fortunately, I don’t have to make time for this movie, because it’s on sixteen separate cable channels every day during the month of December.

9. Scrooged – I detest remakes of A Christmas Carol that repeat what’s already been done better. I’m fine with versions that update the story or take it places where it hasn’t been. In this version, Bill Murray is a cynical, vicious television executive who gets the Dickens scared out of him by an excellent supporting cast, which includes John Forsythe and David Johansen (below with Murray).

8. It’s A Wonderful Life – The 1946 Frank Capra classic. Yes, it’s a sappy story, but it reminds us of all the good we can do, and maybe already are doing, for the people around us every day. At this point it’s passed from being a film to being a Christmas tradition, which makes it immune to cinematic criticism.

7. Saturday Night Live Christmas – SNL has done a lot of really funny stuff over lo these many Christmases – none funnier than Steve Martin’s Christmas Wish.

6. A Christmas Story – I’ve never seen a film become iconic quite as quickly as did the story of Ralphie’s quest for the elusive Red Ryder Ranger Model Air Rifle. A huge bonus is the acting of Darren McGavin, who also played Carl Kolchak in the Night Stalker series. If you like this movie, you can see it for 24 hours straight on TBS.

5. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer – Debuting Christmas 1964, this is the claymation classic that started it all. As much as I enjoy Rudolph, every year Santa seems to become more and more of an insensitive jerk. If this were remade today, Rudolph wouldn’t run away, he’d sue Santa under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

4. Frosty the Snowman – A little song becomes an indelible part of our lives with the help of great voiceover performances from Jackie Vernon (Frosty), Billy De Wolfe (Professor Hinkle) and Jimmy Durante.

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! – Dr. Suess’ Christmas staple first appeared in December of 1966, complete with narration by Boris Karloff and singing by Thurl Ravenscroft, who was also the voice of Kellogg’s Tony the Tiger. Directed by Chuck Jones, of Tom and Jerry fame.

2. Scrooge (1951) – The definitive version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a brilliant cast headed by Alastair Sim set the bar so high that all other Scrooge films seem like disasters by comparison. The original was in black and white, but the colorized version really brings out the feel of London in the early 19th century. Another bonus is how close this version stays to Dickens’ text.

1. A Charlie Brown Christmas – For me, Christmas is in full swing when I hear Linus say, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Released in 1965, when people weren’t afraid to quote the Gospel of Luke and some actually had aluminum Christmas trees illuminated by rotating color wheels, the message is about rejecting the commercialization of Christmas. If Rudolph created claymation holiday specials, Charlie Brown did the same for animation. [Irony Central: Let me say here how disappointed I am with ABC for cutting a full five minutes from A Charlie Brown Christmas last night so that they could squeeze in more commercials. Being the network that gets to broadcast “ACBC” is a sacred trust, which ABC violated for the sake of commercialism. Shame on you, ABC.]

Honorable Mentions:

The Year Without a Santa Claus

‘Twas the Night Before Christmas

The Little Drummer Boy

Miracle on 34th Street

Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town

The Day The Music Died – For Me

We’ve all heard somber-sounding people on television or the radio asking the question: “Do you remember where you were when you heard about (insert traumatic event here)?”

For my parents, there was Pearl Harbor and then the assassination of John Kennedy. For most people of my generation, we have 9-11. But I think there exists a second category of psychic traumas, traumas that are not national ins cope, but are more personal, and leave their scars on a smaller, more targeted audience.

For me, the shooting death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980 falls into this category. I’ve always been a Beatles‘ fan, surrounded as I was by older brothers who were Beatlemaniacs (until I was 8, I was led to believe that all music was Beatles’ music). As I got older, I developed my own love for the Beatles, and for John Lennon’s music in particular. Being a sixteen-year-old in the winter of 1980, I guess I identified with Lennon’s rebellious nature, his brutal honesty and the raw truth in his lyrics. Lennon bowed to no one, and had a reputation as a troublemaker. All of this I found very appealing.

On the night of December 8, 1980, I spent a good deal of time tying up my parents’ telephone line in conversation with my best friend, Dave Padgett (that was how we communicated with each other back in the day). We laughed as we imitated Monty Python skits, in particular, The Piranha Brothers, and we talked about playing an elaborate practical joke on my brother Alan. It was a typical, nondescript Monday night.

Much of America heard about Lennon’s shooting on Monday Night Football. At that moment, however, I was in my family’s upstairs bathroom, having just finished washing my hair. As I was vigorously toweling it dry, my mother, who had been watching the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the living room, called to me that NBC News had just broken into the program to say that a Beatle had been shot. I rushed downstairs, telling myself that she must have misunderstood, that someone with a similar sounding name or something must have been shot. It had to be a mixup. When I got there, Johnny was back on the air, seeming completely oblivious to the incredible news (I didn’t realize that his show was taped).

Flipping around the few channels we had in 1980, I found a reporter in front of Lennon’s building in New York, the Dakota, with a growing crowd behind her. As the taped interviews with witnesses and the updates from Roosevelt Hospital came in, it became clear: John Lennon was dead. I called Dave, who hadn’t been watching television. We hung up quickly to watch the coverage, which alternated between reporters at the hospital and the chaotic, sad scene outside the Dakota. By 1 AM, there were literally thousands of people gathered around Yoko’s building, singing John’s songs, hugging and weeping.

Radio stations of all formats immediately switched to all-Beatles programming, and I stayed up all night, listening to the music, listening to the tributes, listening to the DJs struggle to make sense of it all. It was strange, but I kept checking the newscasts, almost believing that there was still a chance that it was all a mistake, but the facts remained unchanged. John Lennon was dead, killed by a mentally ill fan. We later found out that Lennon had signed a copy of Double Fantasy for his killer, Mark David Chapman, earlier that evening, and the moment had been captured by an amateur photographer:

At school the next day, Dave and I made plans to travel to New York for what was certain to be a massive public funeral. As it turned out, there would be no funeral. Instead Yoko opted for ten minutes of silence on Sunday the 14th; it is said that tens of millions stopped to observe it.

During that week, it seemed like every magazine featured a tribute to John Lennon, and I wondered how much money was made from the grief.

For my part, I kept reading newspapers, listening to the radio tributes and talking to Dave. I sent a short letter to Yoko expressing my feelings of loss, knowing that it was one of a million letters she’d never see. It all seemed surreal.

Over the next few weeks, it felt like we struggled to place John Lennon in context. Was he a pop superstar, a troubled poet, a rebel rocker, a peace activist, or a feminist house husband? How could we label him for easy, convenient packaging? Lennon reinvented himself so often it was hard to pin him down. I remember DJs starting to refer to him as “The Master,” as if he required a label (maybe because Elvis was “The King?”). Thankfully, the attempts to label John Lennon soon passed. The selling of John continues unabated, however, and I expect that he will be redefined and repackaged by each succeeding generation; such is the price of immortality.

For me, though, it was more personal than that; I felt robbed of Lennon’s future almost as if it were my own. I recall being in a record store in Lansdowne soon after and overhearing two middle-aged women discussing the tragedy. They were tsk-tsking it, saying what a shame it was. You have no idea, I remember thinking. You have no idea.