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    • Chris MacAskill

      Part 6: Even in high school, I couldn’t listen to Shakespeare. They would study him in every English class and I would find a way to be absent or plug my ears. I got Ds in English.

      With all the As, UC Santa Barbara decided to accept me even though their policy is no Ds. All I had to do was pass English 1A — bonehead English — a non credit course. They pulled out Shakespeare and I just…couldn’t. I got an F. They let me take it again. F again. They let me take it from UC Berkeley via correspondence, pass/no-pass. They assured me everyone passes. I got a NP and was expelled on academic probation. I had As in calculus, chemistry, and physics. How could this be? 

      I was so upset I swore to never set foot on another college campus as long as I lived. I drove to Utah to be a summer camp counselor, still hurt and angry, and walked into a dining room where the other counselors were having dinner. I was too shy to meet girls in Santa Barbara, but I could hear one at the table whom I couldn’t see, and I could feel myself falling in love with her voice. 

      I asked about her in the morning and they said she had graduated from college Phi Kappa Phi. Oh no. You can’t be a dropout and have your girlfriend be a college grad, no way. She wanted to go riding horses and I melted. What was wrong with me? I could hardly breathe. Chris, I told myself, you can never let on that you have a crush on her. It would ruin everything.

    • Chris MacAskill

      Part 7: We had an incredible summer,  always together but accompanied by 10 teens, me hopelessly in love. I was sure that when Toni found out about my troubles with college, she’d want to move on and I would never get over her. But somehow she invited me to meet her parents and agreed to meet mine. Only she could have talked me into giving college a second try. I enrolled at the University of Utah and we got married. 

      A visiting professor of higher education gave a speech and boomed “The IQ test is the biggest fraud ever perpetrated on the American public! It measures interest and exposure and that’s all!” Could he be right? Does that mean I could pass English? With Toni’s help and Paul Dunn’s speech, I took technical writing and passed.

      What I didn’t tell her was mom dreamed of me going to a great grad school. I secretly began to dream of Oxford, not knowing it was in England. We had a baby, however, and we were broke. I had to work at UPS from 3-8 am and study during the day. We agreed on a budget of $25 to apply to one grad school.

      That eliminated Oxford but Stanford was $25. I knew it was a one-in-a-thousand shot but what if it happened? Someone like me at Stanford? When a slim letter came in a regular envelope, it took me two days to open it because I wanted to be accepted so badly I didn’t think I could take the rejection. At last I held the envelope up to the light and could make out three words: we are pleased.

      The faculty at University of Utah gasped when I told them. “Are you sure it said your advisor is Allan Cox? He’s the Dean of Earth Sciences, the President of the American Geophysical Union, a fellow in the Academy of Sciences, one of the most accomplished scientists alive.” I showed them the letter and they shook their heads.

    • Chris MacAskill

      Last part: I promised myself I would cherish every moment at Stanford more than any student had in the previous century. I promised to kiss the ground each time I stepped on campus, and figuratively I always have.

      I put my letter in my top pocket to show him I wasn’t there by mistake, and 2-year-old son Don on my shoulders to ease my nerves. Allan was a man of few words and got right to it: “Uh (he had a stutter) Chris, can uh you explain your writing achievement test scores? Everything was high but that.”

      The blood drained from my body. I explained that I do equations, not sentences, and that I chose geophysics to get as far from English as possible.

      He put down the file and said he had bad news. I felt myself dying. How would I tell Toni they changed their minds?

      “In order to become a great scientist, which is what you’re here to become, you must become a great writer. What good is great science if no one knows about it? You have to write a masters thesis and I will grade it, and if it’s not good writing, I won’t pass you.”

      I thought about telling him of the communists, the years on the street, Shakespeare…but he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would understand. So Don and I wandered aimlessly around campus, me thinking I could never graduate but at least I could take classes.

      In the end I decided to study Lincoln, Twain and Churchill on my own time. And The Elements of Style. No Shakespeare. 2 hours a day. The strangest thing happened. After 6 months I began to love it. 

      The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. — Mark Twain

      I’m sorry to have written a 5 page letter. I didn’t have time to write a 1-page letter. — Pascal

      I would give all that I own and go into debt to write so fine a piece as I think that is. — Lincoln

      Allan gave me an A on my thesis.

      When I’m tempted to despair about human nature, I think back on the extraordinary people who cared for us without understanding our situation, and where we would be without them. I marvel at how wonderful some people can be. 

      I eventually bonded with dad as an adult, but it took help from Toni. This is mom in her care facility in Martinez, me on her left. 

    • Chris, I'm in awe of your success both as a person and in creating new places to be (software, companies, networks to connect with people). I suspect you are who you are in part because of your difficult early life. Thank you for sharing your story!

    • Markos Giannopoulos

      Clicking the reaction icons on each post seemed it would not be enough to convey the proper feeling. Thank you for this thread, for sharing your story, @Chris

    • Chris, you are a phenomenal storyteller and you have an incredible story. Thank you for sharing it.

    • Yani and Grampie bought me a suit, packed a small bag with my things, and sent me on a TWA jet to San Francisco. It was the last time I would ever see Grampie after 7 years together. I still adore him.

      And he still adores you. I cannot imagine the gut-wrench this must have been for your grandparents. I am my six-year-old grandson’s “parent” right now, and while it is an extremely challenging situation, I love him to the moon and back. There will come a day when his parents will send me the equivalent of your Mom’s telegram, and it will be rough to see him go.

      Thank you for sharing this story, @Chris. I love your wife for being such an amazing young woman who could see that you were a diamond in the rough. Give her a hug from me. 🤗

    • It's not often we get to appreciate a so candidly shared story of a life! It moved me as I read all your episodes, as if I was living it. I can see that you are now a man who understands, and enjoys the gifts of life!

    • I cannot imagine the gut-wrench this must have been for your grandparents.

      I can't either. I have a whole trunk full of home movies Grampie made with his 16mm movie camera of mom growing up. He's in this picture with mom and her best friend — my dad's sister. He was so devoted to mom. Then to see her end up on the streets with her illness... I heard he was never the same after that.

      Here's a short sample of his films. He used to make a new family film every month and show it on the projector.

    • Thank you for sharing your story Chris. It looks like you are one to find strength from adversity. I have had several friends who have suffered from mental illness, I could not imagine if it were my mother. Wow!

      To this day mental illness is not given the proper amount of attention it deserves. Not by a long shot!

    • Seems like you've got the writing thing pretty well figured out, Chris.

      I was in 4th grade in the 1950's when my mom developed paranoid schizophrenia. Years of turmoil and anxiety followed, but my devoted father never gave up. Following electro shock therapy she was able to return to a somewhat normal life. Discussion of mental illness was taboo back then, and it has taken a lifetime for me to begin to understand. Thank you for sharing your story and for this amazing forum you've created!

    • Wow, that's impressive of your dad to not give up. For most schizophrenics, they become alienated from their families.

      Sometimes schizophrenics are truly brilliant. Mom retained a public library card when we were on the streets and we went to the library almost every day. The librarians were wonderful and chatted mom up about what she was reading and how she liked yesterday's books.

      The astonishing thing is she would get 7 books at a time (the limit), one for me. I'd typically pick something like the biography of Wild Bill Hickok and it would take me 3 days to read it. She would read her 6 books in a day or two. I would say "Mom, how is that possible? No one can do that." And I'd open a book and ask her about some stuff I could see in it. She could answer correctly. I never figured that out.

      At Stanford, they had a speed-reading class based on Evelyn Wood and I took it because I wanted to be like mom. I failed at it and Stanford discontinued the course, saying it reduced comprehension.

      Mom claimed to have memorized the complete works of Shakespeare. I was never able to verify that because I hate Shakespeare. However, when I tried to read Hamlet, I recognized what I read from the things she'd recite as we walked.

      If you want a fantastic read on how brilliant they can be, Simon Winchester's book The Professor and the Madman is riveting.

    • I have the audio version of the Winchester book and it is indeed fascinating.

      Mom and dad met in nursing school. Becoming a nurse was the fulfillment of her life-long dream. Dad eventually went on to Dental school in Atlanta, and after graduating was invited to join the faculty where he taught for a couple of years. After several years in private practice and a short stint in the army, he went back to grad school and we moved to southern California where he became one of the founders of his church's dental school. Teaching was his Calling, and he loved mentoring students. It was there that mom's "breakdown" occurred. She became irrational, convinced that my older sister was a "dope fiend" and was hiding drugs in the house among other things. Dad would often be out till two or three am searching for her in the nearby orange groves where she'd be hiding from her demons. Eventually she was 'committed' to the university hospital, where the psychiatrists recommended electro shock therapy. Mom vehemently disagreed, but dad reluctantly gave consent. That treatment was successful in that she was able to return home and function in a more normal manner, but she disliked California and longed to return to North Carolina where she felt less threatened. Dad ultimately gave in and we moved back east where he returned to private practice.

      Mom never forgave dad for consenting to her shock therapy. After his passing she said that if he truly loved her he'd have taken them himself before subjecting her to that treatment. But from my perspective that therapy saved her life. Only after her passing (at 97) did I learn from her younger sister the rest of the story. I had only known that my maternal grandmother had died in early middle age while mom was away in nursing school. I'd heard mom say "the Doctors killed my mother" but she never elaborated and I assumed it was her paranoia talking. But my aunt told of returning home from high school one afternoon to find that her mother had painted the walls of her bedroom with the contents of the slop jar (they lived on a farm and had no indoor plumbing). When my aunt objected, her mother siezed a butcher knife and chased her out of the house. My grandfather, a poor farmer in the middle of the great depression, had no option but to have her committed to the state mental hospital where she was treated with insulin shock therapy (as graphically portrayed in the movie "A Beautiful Mind"). After many weeks she was discharged, but the psychosis eventually returned and she was recommitted. The chief psychiatrist happened to be on vacation, and a less experienced physician apparently got the insulin dose wrong and she died during treatment. Perhaps that's why mom, who always extolled the joys of Nursing, had a lifelong distrust of doctors.

    • Oh, no... That sounds so much like my mom. I think I heard from my sister that she had shock therapy when she was in Sayre, and apparently it helped for awhile. Maybe that's how she got out. She would not see a doctor, even when she broke her ankle.

      I went to see A Beautiful Mind with Toni and I've only been so emotional in a movie once — Million Dollar Baby. For both movies I had a 3-day hangover. Btw, Sean Penn plays the Madman in the upcoming movie version and he's unrecognizable.

    • A Beautiful Mind made me sick for days. There are drugs available now that would have made mom's life, and the lives of her family members, much less stressful. But distrust of doctors and fundamentalist religious beliefs led her to refuse all drugs. In her last two years she came to trust her caregiver and accepted the "vitamins" that wonderful lady provided. And anxiety and paranoia faded. We enjoyed the most relaxed and rational conversations of our lives.

    • Paul Johnston

      Mom left dad and moved in with her parents. 

      I am curious as to why your mother left your dad and if this was ever revealed to you? Was it primarily due to the on set of her mental illness and that placed just too much stress on your family? You mentioned that later on in life you bonded with your father with the help of his wife. I am wondering why you may have been fearful of your father? (excluding the example you gave of his dislocating your shoulder by swing you around). Was it mainly the fact that you spent most of your time with your mother and infrequently saw your father?

      Somewhere in the past, maybe an interview or an article, I was aware of your being sometimes homeless as a child. However, your story above is more complete and takes great courage to tell. As you relate, your hardships and trials were many. However, most importantly as you point out, there were crucial supportive people at the right times and places in your life that allowed you to overcome a very difficult childhood! The follow through on this is it may be possible that each one of us could play a supportive role in someone's life that ultimately make all the difference in the world as to the outcome of their life.

    You've been invited!