I had dropped out of grad school and was determined not to go back when my undergrad advisor encouraged me to meet Peter Lyman. I went to Berkeley to meet him only to find out that he had been called away to do jury duty. There was a message for me, telling me to come over for dinner with other grad students. So I arrived at his house, completely uncertain about what I was supposed to do or say. His casual, open, and supportive demeanor made me love him instantaneously and we chatted about all sorts of things. I felt an immediate connection and he encouraged me to apply, even if the deadline had already passed.
After I was accepted, we began plotting. We were always quite good at playing good cop/bad cop and working together to bend whatever rules faced us. We spent long hours talking about everything under the sun, going out for lunch or just sitting in his office grabbing books to debate about. I loved listening to Peter’s stories about starting the Free Speech Movement Cafe at Berkeley or talking to telcos in Mexico. Both of us had an activist streak and we loved plotting about how we would change academia or mediated society or whatever.
When Peter was first diagnosed with brain cancer, it was a complete shock. He went into surgery and I took over his class. We were all convinced that everything would get completely better and that optimistic outlook allowed us to plow through the worst of the pain. The surgery was successful, but chemo was a bitch. Even though he got better, the drugs ate at him and we had many painful conversations about how much life had changed because of the cancer. Still, we imagined a world when everything would get better and worked towards that.
Over time, new patterns emerged and we got back to plotting even though the pain never really went away. We talked about youth culture and academic publishing and regulation to suppress youth, albeit in calmer chunks than before. The MacArthur Foundation gave us plenty of room to plot and imagine a different future and we relished the opportunities to cause trouble together.
Four months ago, Peter called with dreadful news: the cancer was back, with a vengeance. Our conversations lost their plotting luster but Peter and I still got together and phone regularly to talk about the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. As things grew worse, our conversations became more stilted, but his first student (Michael Carter) was always there to help Peter share stories. In the midst of all of this, Peter’s son Andrew and his wife gave birth to twin boys. Just the mere mention of the babies would put a smile to Peter’s face and a great deal of life revolved around those kids. But the cancer continued to do its damage and slowly, Peter faded away in the comfort of his home and with the loving support of his family. This morning, he left this earth.
Few students that I know have close relationships with their advisor. I was very fortunate in that way. Peter and I were always friends first, mentor/mentee second. Yet, he was always there to guide me through the perils of academic life. I wish that I could capture all of our conversations in a bottle. What I remember most is how much they always energized and motivated me to continue trying to change the world. I couldn’t have asked for more out of an advisor. He always knew who I should talk to or what I should read or how to make me think about a problem from a new direction. And no matter how crotchety I got in the field, he always gave me hope that change could happen.
I am going to miss him dreadfully. Peter was an amazing friend and an amazing advisor. I couldn’t have asked for anything more. May he rest in peace.