Social Distortion, “Angel’s Wings”

I triumphed in the face of adversity
And I became the man I never thought I’d be
And now my biggest challenge a thing called love
I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was

 

 

 

 

In May of this year, I took the worst beating of my academic life. A savage, intense affair that resembled an extra scene from some literary version of Fight Club. No, I didn’t get to meet Brad Pitt. Instead, I got worked over by a smallish, youngish woman named Helen.  In fairness, this wasn’t an entirely unexpected development. I had spent the bulk of that academic year reworking, and reinventing, my quasi-stable thesis, and so the finished product was somewhat… well, unfinished.  The draft did, however, attack some of the sacred cows in my sort-of field, and I was rebuffed with extreme prejudice by the guardians of that field.  You see, originally, I signed on to do a project on early-modern drama and I ended up in printing. These things happen. The muse takes you where it will, and you have to roll with it.  Unfortunately, these changes can have rather severe consequences when they come too late.  The beating ended with an ultimatum: “give us something good in the next draft or go home.” (1) My heart sunk. In a state of utter disappointment, and perpetual anxiety, I began to plan for my trip to Dublin. And, then, for the long, American summer that would somehow pull me through everything. And as luck would have it, it finally did. But the journey, as these things usually work, was far more complicated than I had ever imagined it would be. And here, as a sort of “what I did this summer” that will hopefully make up for a long absence, is that story…

The summer started off well-enough. I came up with an outline for (yet another) thesis, and this was quickly implemented. I got halfway through the new chapter in a week, and I began entertaining thoughts of a short, sweet progression from “studious Ph.D. student” to “man of leisure.” After seeing the R.E.M. rehearsal in Dublin, I returned home in July to prepare for an extended stint in San Francisco. My best friend Julie and I were planning on catching quite a few Smashing Pumpkins shows, and Dianna would come to see us for a few of those, as well. (2) I brought the remaining bits of my chapter, and intended to get things settled during the first few evenings.  However, as a noted anthropologist once said: “things go awry.”

Striking while the iron is hot cannot be oversold as a philosophical approach to life.  A few extra days of leisure, and I began to obsess over the required quality of the writing.  Would it be good enough for my supervisor?  Would our fight get to round three?  Would I ever earn my upgrade to full-Ph.D. student from baby-Ph.D. student? (3) My recollection of ideas and sources began to fade, and I found myself adrift in a sea of compositional uncertainty.  Stuck in this state of ennui, I began to promise myself that it would all get done “next week.”  Each week, I kept finding things that “needed doing,” and pushing back the start date of that rapidly-fading draft.

By mid-August, I was in a state of serious peril.  I had gone out to Michigan to spend time with Dianna, and the stress made me the worst sort of cohabitant.  Everything irritated me.  Every flaw – real or imagined – became an insurmountable obstacle to happiness.  In short, I was tyrannical and unsatisfiable.  I came home in September, and arranged to stay for a couple of weeks more.  I would finish the draft, or I would quit school.  The thing simply had to die – one way or another, there would be a Pyrrhic end to the whole affair – either by scorched Earth or fireworks.  Now, bear in mind, this was all a beast of my own creation.  My idleness had led me to the same place it took me in high school.  By the time I ended high school, I had earned a place right in the middle of my graduating class (4), and had remarkably few prospects for the future.  It took an enormous amount of luck,  charity, and the careful guidance of loved ones to get me back on my feet.  I say it all the time, but, if not for Julie, I would never have attended college.  Never found my way to Oxford and Cambridge.  Never made it out of the gravity of my family’s ruin.

And so, when everything had stalled this summer, I found myself wondering just what I had done to my life.  How could I have let it all go so wrong?  How could I have wasted such an opportunity?  All of this, strangely enough, because of a few thousand words that I basically knew how to write, but couldn’t for fear of making a mistake.  I had never been so indecisive in my entire life.  I went back and forth from Michigan to Massachusetts to New York.  I drove around Vermont and New Hampshire, and I began to try to come to terms with the new and most-definitely-not-improved life that would soon unfold before me.

That is, until a little voice in side my head began to scream.  A deep, primal rage at my apathy.  I thought of everything I’d given up for the sake of my education – relationships, friendships, a life… my father’s final years – and, as often happens, a little bit of music made everything start to change.  Social Distortion’s Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll had come ’round to “Angel’s Wings,” and a lyric struck me hard: “How many times have you asked yourself / Is this the hand of fate now that I’ve been dealt? / You’re so disillusioned this can’t be real / And you can’t stand now the way you feel… / I don’t care what they say / I won’t live or die that way…” A light came on in the melodrama-encrusted cave of my heart, and I knew – knew – that this was it: win or go home.  Win or die.  The life I spent so much time building now depended on my ability to get up off the mat, shake myself off, and fight for what I wanted.  I had a choice.  I could spend my time passing the buck, or I could be straight with myself. And then, the real truth came to me…

Years ago, after my three-year hiatus, I began my university education in earnest.  I cleaved through the coursework, taking the hardest classes I could, and won A grades and awards in droves.  I went from UMass to Oxford, and the quality of my work only increased.  I found myself able to match my game to whatever the challenge.  Sheer Will made up for the gaps in my education.  After UMass, I went on to Cambridge where I would eventually get a first on my dissertation. (5) Heck, I even learned, as David Bowie had long before, “when to go out” and “when to stay in.”  Things were looking up.  But then I didn’t get into Ph.D. programs, and I had to come back and teach at UMass.  And then my Dad died.  And then I found other rejections.  I felt like Job.  I felt like a fool.  I felt lost.  I hadn’t been beaten up until now, and I took this as a sign that I had “peaked.”  There simply couldn’t be another explanation.  (Sometimes, in bad moments, I still think this.) And so, when I finally began to succeed, it was hard to shake off the feeling that I had gotten into York on luck rather than talent.  It was hard to take my dissertation seriously, as I continued to feel like I was just waiting for the other shoe to drop.  That beating in May seemed inevitable – and I accepted it.  Rolled right over.  And it was only this summer that I realized that I’d been constructing a self-fulfilling prophecy from day one.

And so I began to fight. I finished the chapter within a few days of this realization, and then I concentrated on the remaining time with Dianna, and on Julie’s wedding.  I invested as much of myself as I could into becoming human, and on repenting for the sins of my feckless, stress-addled self.  I sent the chapter to my supervisor, and I waited.  On returning to York, I found that my chapter had been a success.  It needs work, sure, but I’m on track for the upgrade (early December – please keep your fingers crossed!).  And I’m all right.  I’m learning to see this Ph.D. as its own challenge, and not something upon which the cumulative worth of my existence rests.  Whatever happens, I think that might be the most valuable lesson that will come out of this three-year odyssey.

The song, as it happens, was the first thing I heard when I walked out of my supervision.  “I triumphed in the face of adversity / and I became the man I never thought I’d be / And now my biggest challenge a thing called love / I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was…” I first got the album on the same day as my beating, and that verse left me feeling bitter when I heard it.  But now – well, hey, it fits.  Learning to love myself, and this work, and those around me… that is the biggest challenge left.  I took my beating, and I’m over it.  It doesn’t touch me anymore.  Not because I’ve come up with an encyclopedia of reasons to aid in my denial, but because I’ve learned one simple truth: we’re all winners and losers. And you know, underpinning the whole “strike while the iron is hot” philosophy is a recognition that we’re all eventually going to shuffle off this mortal coil.  Looking back on the darkest moments of the summer, and the ways in which they frustrated and hurt the people I love, I know that I don’t want to live, or die, that way.

And so, friends, I’m back.  I’m beginning to shake the dust off the storytelling parts of my brain, and we’ll get better as we go along.  The site will soon begin to grow again (and you’re certainly welcome to help!). Yes, this was a somewhat ego-centric narrative of the summer, but I’m sure that the rest will come out in other stories.  (In fact, I’m sure there will be a post about arranging the music for Julie’s wedding.)  YouTube has presented us with three options for listening to this song – and the best clips are a bizarre anime version and a sappy acoustic one (the video is sappy, not the song…) (6)  See you all soon!

 

 


  1. Phrased, of course, in very diplomatic language. This is Britain, after all. [Back]
  2. More on those here. [Back]
  3. An “upgrade” is a standard part of the British process (and, indeed, most Ph.D. programs).  Without this, it’s “thanks for playing” and a hastily-arranged trip home. [Back]
  4. Curiously enough, however, I had amazing scores on my standardized tests.  No one knew what to do with me. [Back]
  5. That’s a “Wow!” in the American system… [Back]
  6. The former has a perfect audio track, and the second is a very interesting variant.  Click them: if you dare! [Back]

3 thoughts on “Social Distortion, “Angel’s Wings”

  1. welcome back, I can totally understand that feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Yes, it does hold you back – I’m glad though you have found your way through.

    Fabulous song.

  2. Thank you! It’s nice to be back. I’ve been really surprised by the emotional weight of the dissertation-writing process. It’s nice to think (even for a day) that I’m starting to get a handle on it… we’ll see how that holds up over time, of course. 😉

    The song is brilliant, isn’t it? I first encountered Social D (as I suspect many people did) on their eponymous album. It’s really great to see a band grow up, and yet remain true to itself at the same time. That, and I think I’m a real softy for punk love songs… 🙂

  3. “Angel’s Wings” is absolutely my favorite Social D song. There’s something so melancholy about it. Sex, Love & Rock N’ Roll is such a great album. Kudos to you.

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