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Circus Vargas Tent

Circus Vargas Tent

Intellectual Biography Short Description

It was the first assignment in Liberal Studies 300 and I was just learning about what being "interdisciplinary" meant. As I read profiles in our textbook about other famous inter-disciplinarians like the philosopher Isiah Berlin, like the children's television host Fred Rodgers I bonded with them for they too had difficulty in finding one clear path to a career. Although they were remarkable people who brought fresh differences to thier fields I connected with the fact that their lives were not straight paths discernible by age 6. Our culture tends to embrace the "genius model" in that we love it when we know by age 6 what we will be and already demonstrate considerable aptitude. What about those of us who do not fit this model? To write my intellectual autobiography was to revisit the skills I had acquired along the curving path my life has taken. The goal of this assignment was to think critically about my identity rather than feel despondent over the fact I wasn't playing the piano at age six I could see other skills coming forth even then!

"Foundation for Rhinestone Tourniquets"

In Mid-September in my first year of school, Ms. Platt, our school librarian, was reading my kindergarten class a story in our school library. After the story we were allowed to hunt around and find a book that we wanted to take out on our first library card. I could hardly contain my joy at the thought of having a book of my very own to read. It was very hard to choose just one book as there were so many tempting choices. I finally settled on a story book showing all the steps involved in putting up a circus big-top. I took my place at the end of the line and when I made it to the front, Ms. Platt eyed my choice with disdain. She said in a very condescending voice, "This is a boy's book. You go put that back and choose something else." I looked Ms. Platt in the eye and refused to budge. With tears of conviction in my eyes, I told her, "I need to know about this because someday I am going to work for a circus!" If Ms. Platt could have hit the fast forward button to my life for fifteen years in the future, my words were no boast. I was indeed working for a circus marveling at how the ocean of orange canvas beneath my feet would become the giant tent called a "big-top."  Although I did not know it as a five-year-old what I was doing was making a conscious decision to defend my right to explore knowledge. My future in the circus not-withstanding, I resented Ms. Platt for her bullying way of trying to squelch my curiosity. I am at my core a curious person, and as a result, I have had experiences in many different fields. Ultimately I came back to college to get a B.A. in interdisciplinary studies so that I could change yet again to another career path, which embraces my curiosity and diverse interests.

I now use a sort of a litmus test on my friends and family when I am considering making a life change. I just tell them what I have been thinking about and watch their facial expressions change to dismay. Often they will go from tranquil listening to rear back and spit out, "You're crazy!" When that happens I know I am on the right track. These were the exact words my parents uttered when I told them that after two years of art school I could stand no more. I was leaving to accept a job traveling with a circus.

Art school was disappointing for me because it was sterile and removed from the process of art. For me, the circus as it turned out was the real art school. I could not find my way in art school although I did many assignments in drawing, painting, printmaking, and filmmaking. I found more satisfaction in the making of art but art school also focused on the analyzing of art. Instead of a place that encouraged creativity, I found art school had an atmosphere that combined rigidity with competition and I did not flourish there. I couldn't find my groove in art school and saw myself bouncing from one project to another without direction or satisfaction. Eventually I made costumes for other artists who were doing performance pieces. In the waning days of art school I found something I really enjoyed and that made me want to work for a show that used costumes. The transition out of the academy to the circus could be summed up in the new discipline that ruled circus life "The show must go on!"

In the circus I learned discipline towards work from my first day forward that was entirely missing in art school. Shows were performed on muddy lots in the pouring rain, acrobats worked in costumes that hid bandages from recent falls, and we all were frequently bleary eyed from fatigue. When the ringmaster's whistle sounded a half-hour before show time signaling "places," all employees could be fined fifty dollars a minute for every minute you weren't in place. I learned to make costumes for elephants, chimpanzees, and bears, as well as other performers. In addition to this I also took tickets, sold tickets, operated a small souvenir stand, and planned routes to our next location and made sure every driver had a copy of the directions. During the year I spent with the circus the average work day was twelve hours and we never stayed in one location for more than three days. It seemed that everyday there was an emergency of some kind, be it on the circus grounds like a generator going out during the tiger act or an audience member falling off the bleachers. I learned how to administer first aid so well that by the end of three months I could tie tourniquets with the same ease I could set rhinestones.

I stayed with the circus for exactly one year ironically leaving the exact day and hour I joined. At the end of a year I was considered an "old-timer," someone who lasted longer than expected. Though I enjoyed the travel and friends I made on the show my heart yearned to return to college as I realized my future did not lie in show business. I found my way back to the place I liked best in the US, northern California.  I settled in a small town about forty miles north of San Francisco called Santa Rosa where I returned to college and attained an honors A.A. in art. However, even with my A.A. degree, I was faced with the same problem most recent graduates are, in that I still needed regular work.  Although I had my own illustration business and also worked making costumes this was not paying the rent.  At this point I decided to stay on at the junior college and to get a certificate in dental assisting. I wasn't necessarily drawn to dentistry rather I wanted to acquire a skill that would afford me an easy way to find steady employment. In dentistry I found the perfect melding of art and science it required manual dexterity to do many procedures and the study of biology, anatomy and microbiology.

            Dental assisting provided me with a way to find a job in three phone calls or less and I was thrilled to find work so easily I learned the value of details and through dentistry I learned that a logical sequence can lead to a predictable result. This created an understanding for me of what a scientific result entailed. My choice of becoming a dental assistant was about as different a life as I could have chosen for myself from my days in art school. Just as the circus taught me the value of being on time and doing work under difficult circumstances; dentistry taught me how to manage fussy details and to remain calm under any condition. Through dentistry I learned there was a wrong way to do things and the right way and that kind of exactness I learned to follow. I learned many details about individual teeth, how the bite worked, what constituted a disease state, and what brought about health. For me to understand what I was doing required many hours of regular study in head and neck anatomy, I had to learn to take x-rays, and how to maintain a sterile field in the face of so many invading microbes. This kind of precision was good for me it allowed me to think in terms of all the details needed in order to start and complete a task systematically.

            While checking off all the requirements to become a dental assistant, I occasionally snuck in a course to meet my creative needs. I branched out and took a course in creative writing because I wanted to learn about writing short stories and poetry. I didn't excel at either poetry or story writing, but I enjoyed the other students in the class and the way we all gave feedback to one another. Towards the end of the semester we had a working poet come and speak to us about what the life of a professional writer is really like. He was funny, articulate and gave the most engaging explanations about poetry. We laughed until we cried because he made us look at writing in ways we would not have on our own. A month later I asked our guest speaker "Lee Engdahl," to a holiday party I was having and to my surprise he came. I remember Lee arriving mid-party and by the end of the evening we were very interested in one another. We were married and in a year's time.

I easily graduated with a certificate in dental assisting and in that same week I married Lee Engdahl, found a job working with an oral surgeon, and took and passed the state board to become a registered dental assistant.  Along with being a poet, my husband was a book designer and a letterpress printer. Together we established "Engdahl Typography," which became our own publishing company. I found fairly quickly that working in dentistry paid the bills but it would not satisfy me in any other ways; it was a tedious job at best. So I started to moonlight by working in "Engdahl Typography," the rest of the time.  We started off by printing a previously unpublished play by Raymond Carver. Lee did all the design for the book and printing and I did the illustrations and came up with a marketing plan. I focused on sales to libraries that had special collections in letterpress printing. This required many hours of research to compile a mailing list.  I knew we were a success when the Bodleian Library in Oxford England bought a copy. From that sale many other libraries bought books. I loved this chance to delve into business and it was a happy time for Lee and I as we approached many authors and were gladly given permission to publish stories.

Engdahl typography was a vehicle to meet people, to entertain many creative plans, and to collaborate together. The business took over our lives and the time and effort it required to keep it going was time and effort that wasn't put into our marriage. Our spare money was put back into the business and not spent on vacations or time away.  The end result was after ten years the excitement we felt towards our work and towards each other had drained away and the marriage was loveless and the business lifeless. It came as a painful realization for both of us that it was time to leave the marriage and all the work we had put into the business.

            I was still a dental assistant and I found another aspect of that job to move into. I was hired by a prime orthodontic practice in downtown San Francisco that catered to adults. I was hired as a treatment coordinator which basically involved selling braces to adults not the easiest of tasks. It easy to explain what the treatment entailed but the more difficult part of my job was working with the decision making process most adults have to go through. Few could be expected to make a decision that could take as long as two years and cost as much as ten thousand dollars in an eye blink. My job was to build up business which meant the financial health of the practice lay on my shoulders. In ten years time I developed a system of researching past patients and called people who were in two or three years ago because I was curious as to what happened to them. This allowed me to restart our conversation about their dental health and often they were ready to start the project. Therefore, because of my research I helped to build the practice from a five-hundred-thousand dollar a year practice to a two million dollar a year practice but the growth that I helped bring about was not reflected in my salary. I realized that in order to change my job I would need to return to college to get a B.A. But what B.A. would reflect my understanding of making art, my desire to know more about business and science? I wanted to go back to school but didn't know how to make this a reality. My fiftieth birthday came like a hammer blow in 2005.  I saw if I didn't leave my job and right away the opportunity to go to college would never come again. So I faced down my fear and I left my safe and secure job.

A month later I entered Berkeley City College for the first time to gather all the credits needed to transfer to San Francisco State University. It took me three years of taking progressive algebra classes, statistics, English and physical anthropology, among others in order to transfer. I had no idea what Liberal Studies were until I came upon the webpage by mistake or perhaps good fortune. A major that combined science with the humanities and social sciences sounded like it was made for me. At last I had a way of combining my many interests. I wanted to be able to transition into a new career avenue which at this point looks like it will involve writing, possibly grant writing. To be an effective grant writer is going to require a broader knowledge base than I currently have and it will also take an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving.

            In my heart, I am happiest when I am considering all the avenues needed to solve a problem. I am engaged when looking at a problem from many different viewpoints. In order to do this effectively I have had to apply my curiosity to research. I love gathering knowledge which is what research really is all about. So far my life has had a multitude of experiences and I never thought of these as the sharpening stones from which my writing skills would be honed. No kidding that's exactly what's happened.



Reflection on Writing My Intellectual Autobiography

What I learned from this exercise is that my life has been made of unrelated parts I could never think of my life as having a cohesive center. This exercise helped me to see that I have been interdisciplinary from the get go. I never realized until this exercise how much art and science are woven together through out my life. Almost as though when the scale was tipped too heavily toward science it tipped back again toward art. Now I feel a balance when I just reconcile myself to being interdisciplinary. One of the many benefits of the liberal studies program is that I have come to trust both my ability to write as well as my ability to work as a visual artist.

Circus Vargas Elephants

Circus Vargas Elephants
Introduction | Personal Statement | Mission Statement | Resume | Liberal Studies Major: Classes & Competencies | Values, Skills, and Experience | About Me
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