Thursday, March 29, 2007

The University of Michigan Residential College (RC) that I attended in the Fall of 1972 as a freshman, was, intentionally or not, filled with remarkable minds. Ostensibly, those selected were chosen more or less at random. On the other hand, the Harvard Guide to Colleges of the time categorized the RC as the single midwestern college offering the equivalent of an Ivy League education.

Then, too, there was that small matter of “self-selection,” a term of sociological art that I didn’t become aware of until my sophomore year, at least. Yes, RC students were selected to attend more or less at random, but the selection pool was limited to those who applied to attend what was then billed as an expressly “experimental” college that would operate as an independent institution embedded within the larger undergraduate student body.

There was also the small matter of a burdensome requirement to study a foreign language intensively with the goal of becoming at least somewhat fluent in it. At the time, the trend of contemporary youth culture was about slipping – or rather, breaking – free of the intolerant bonds of an intolerable society. Only certain types of midwestern students knowingly applied for the privilege of satisfying more onerous requirements than the average undergrad. And that, presumably, is why the number of out-of-state students to be found in the RC was, so I recall, much higher than in the undergrad student body at large.

Back then, out-of-state students were, by definition, richer and smarter. Richer, because the cost of their tuition was a lot higher; smarter, because… well, I don’t know why. It’s just what everyone seemed to think. Perhaps it took a particularly smart person to recognize that the quality of a University of Michigan (U of M) undergrad education was worth paying a surcharge for – if you couldn’t get into an Ivy League college.

Had my grades and finances had allowed, I, too, would have been an out-of-state student. But since that wasn’t the case, I was delighted to have been accepted at the RC, especially since my grade point average was not outstanding. I really wanted to be a member of an intellectual elite and I hoped the RC would help catapult me over the top of my own limitations.

A Brief Digression

I interrupt this narrative to make a point I haven’t heard anyone else make about the quality of life in 1972 America.

When I arrived at the RC “depression,” as medical term, didn’t exist. At least, not for me.

Attention deficit disorder? Post-traumatic stress syndrome? Huh? No such thing. Nervous breakdowns existed, I think, somewhere. Somewhere else.

So I wasn’t depressed while a student at the RC. I just had a suicidal impulse.
Toward the end of the 70s, I believe the term “post-war stress” came into vogue to explain the reported difficulties of Vietnam War vets readjustment to civilian life.
But it didn’t have anything to do with my quality of life, because I hadn’t gone to Vietnam.

Unlike college students today, who have recourse to a pharmacological cornucopia of solutions to mental misery, my generation strolled the hallways of the East Quadrangle with an invisible ball and chain attached to their legs. It’s something to think about when considering the nature and quality of the lives lived in that time and place and before.

All those uppers, downers and Quaaludes, the pot, hash and dope, mushrooms and alcohol weren’t ingested solely as a result of a natural urge to experiment common to young adults. Personally, I think it just a bit to do with self-medication for as yet unknown and untreated psychic miseries.

End of Digression/Beginning of the Tale

On my first full day as a freshman in the cavernous red brick pueblo that was the East Quad (EQ) at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, circa September 1972, senior hall monitor Bob Zarzar, invited all of the neophyte university students on my exclusively-male freshman hall to a small orientation meeting in his private residence. It wasn’t hard to get to or to find; all of us resided on a shared corridor of approximately 150 feet that was dotted with dorm room doors. Unlike, Zarzar, however, most of us shared accommodations in rooms furnished for two.

Zarzar was a short, Caucasian teddy bear, with a black beard that suggested an allegiance to the beat generation of which I, at that time, knew nothing. Having gathered the willing on the floor of his room, he introduced us to his bong (water pipe); to his personal copy of the book, The Joy of Sex, which he passed around for our perusal; and to his voluptuous girlfriend. Zarzar also discussed the merits of his waterbed, though most of us, I believe, were sleeping on mattresses old enough to have earned their own baccalaureate. My mattress lived in a bunk bed whose second inhabitant, a certain Rick Trohman, had been accepted into an experimental med student program at age 18.

The Zarzar of ’72 and ’73 professed belief in a coming revolution; which, he thought, would be a rebirth of the ideals of liberty, justice and egalitarianism. Beyond that, he offered few details. In retrospect, he seems to have had a messianic vision not entirely unlike those of the European intellectuals who heralded the onset of the first world war with enthusiasm, certain that the miserable pre-war societies that entered the war would be reborn through a trial by (gun)fire as something far finer and more humane. To those who still think that fire begets water, I recommend the paintings of Paul Nash and the German Expressionists.

Shortly before I left the University, I ran into Zarzar again. This Zarzar –circa 1978 or so—was well on his way toward a PhD in, of all things, economics. What happened to his girlfriend or the impending revolution I never learned.

Our pueblo’s many walls were adorned with mementos left behind by untold generations of wild, aging adolescents. Some were made with pen, others with pencil, magic marker, and possibly, gouache or watercolor. Their content was full of smoky wisdom, much of it borrowed, from more respected sources and reworked to meet the expressive needs of a generation that believed in the redemptive quality of love, unleashed sexual license, the coming revolution, peace and music. The young artists and authors whose work I admired were participants in or at least observers of a cultural and political upheaval that reflected the longings and concerns of my Vietnam-era generation. The artwork was generally attributed to art students who had formerly lived in the EQ, when the art school was still located on the central portion of the campus

Congress chose to end the military draft just in time for my age cohort to escape the terror and agony of the draft lottery and its ruinous consequences. Fortunately or not, I belonged the very first group of American males in perhaps 30 years whose coming of age did not include required military service. Although I had escaped that fate by very little, the guilt that came of eating, sleeping and studying in the same place that previous generations of young men had stamped with their psychic angst and moral conflicts prior to their introduction to the arts of war, or their narrow escape from the glory of shared service to an occasionally grateful nation.

I was appalled and aesthetically offended to learn, at the end of my freshman year, that the administration intended to silence the passionate walls of the pueblo with fresh paint. Just days before the end of the spring semester, I borrowed a 35 MM camera that I had no idea how to use in order to record what I considered to be a significant, meaningful cultural artifact. Accompanied by friend, Janus, who had known some of the responsible authors, poets and artists, and made some singular contributions of his own, I explored the curiously meandering and inexplicably mazelike halls of the quadrangle, while recording with camera, pen and pencil as much as I could of the doomed relics, figuring that someday, it would all be valuable fodder for such queries as yours.

During that freshman year, one of my classes focused on the history of the Vietnam War; while exploring related themes and issues, such as racism. Motivated by that conversation, I decided to join the downtrodden Black students who ate at apparently segregated tables in the EQ dining hall. Without introduction or invitation, then, I took my meal tray to tables filled only with Black students. Oddly enough, they weren’t particularly friendly; a fact that I believe I attributed to suspicion, an emotion for which I had great empathy. After all, my own ancestors had been slaves in the land of Egypt and, more recently, in concentration camps.

Not terribly much later, one of the Black students resident in EQ found my dorm room and prophesized imminent death for this or any white soul–he was quite serious – who continued to intrude upon the self-segregated Black students in the community dining hall. The messenger of death, Janus Miller, made quite clear that my presence was neither desired nor appreciated. He expounded at great length, during repeated visits, on such topics as the low cost murder in the Detroit area when purchased from the denizens of the streets near the home he shared with his mother, Calsista Burton. Death, he told me, could be purchased retail for as little as $10 or $15… in 1972 or ’73 dollars, of course.

(Later in life, Janus would once appear on my doorstep--sans car or wallet-- and request shelter for a while. At night, he prowled the moonlit bedroom with a blanket slung across his shoulders and kept me awake with an eerie monologues about recent conversations with Satan, whose intent it was to steal my soul if I fell asleep.)

This was my first hand introduction to Black Power, about which I had heard a great deal on TV in my white suburban neighborhood, during high school. Black Power, in retrospect, seems to have involved repaying the honkies with every bit of hate that had been off-loaded on Black people since the advent of slavery. At that time, I periodically felt much the same way about the Christians who had drunk so much of my own ancestors’ blood

Janus and I began a long-running argument about freedom of speech, religion and action which didn’t conclude until after he earned his ME, and eventually died on an operating table in Detroit because the hospital to which he had been delivered in a coma – having injured himself while leading a skiing trip for a Southfield, MI, high school – wouldn’t operate without an assurance that the comatose Black man could pay for its services. Although his mother reportedly begged them to do something and offered to sign whatever paperwork herself, Janus languished in the hospital’s emergency room, untreated and comatose for 14 hours before the police transferred him to another hospital, where he died.

Needless to say, I miss my friend Janus very much, and often think of him when I hear of or meet accomplished Black people.

Janus had a car, a jalopy, really. I did not. In the course of a sophomore year in which my father endured two major heart-valve replacement surgeries in Detroit, I went home frequently, by bus, to visit him. It was a long trip requiring multiple transfers, especially after my father returned home to Bloomfield Hills to convalesce. At some point, Janus offered to drive me home. As I was self-supporting and lived on very little money, Janus wouldn't accept gas money from me, though he didn't have much either, as I recall.

My parents were furious with me for bringing a Black person to their home. In his absence, they excoriated me: Even if Janus could be trusted, they told me, he would very possibly tell his ghetto pals and neighbors where and how they lived, putting them at great risk. Didn't happen. Instead, they eventually came to love and appreciate Janus, too.

On another occasion, we were pulled over by a police cruiser as Janus's car turned into the posh but low profile street that lead to the home of my parents and the home of former Gov. Romney. It turned out that the policeman had taken us for a mixed race couple with no good reason for being in that neighborhood. (My hair was longer then!) Janus seemed to think that it had been a good thing I was in the car at the time; he didn't have much faith that area police would exhibit reasonable behavior when dealing with a (sharp tongued) Black man.

Dense earthy plumes of marijuana smoke tended to fill the hallways while I lived in the EQ. Although I didn’t smoke, that smoke represented freedom to me.

Several years later, my brilliant EQ friend, Frank Sudia, and our Honors Soc. Psych. Instructor from Ratcliff, essentially coerced me into trying the weed with them. Frank, whose remarkable intelligence was balanced by an equally breathtaking neglect of personal hygiene, penned a wonderful “chemical” poem while living in the Quad. It was based on the periodic table of the elements. On occasion I stumble across it and marvel at it.

At a midpoint in my RC career, I contacted a student mental health counselor and indicated that if she didn’t do something to help me, I would commit suicide. Her response was speechlessness, a form of shock, I suppose. It wasn’t the type of help I had hoped for and genuinely infuriated me. But then, I didn’t commit suicide, either.

On another occasion, having read The Harrad Experiment, I wrote a lengthy essay on the nature of love and, what at the time seemed to me to be a rather surprising societal blindness to the possibility of same gender love. I believe that it ran about 15 or 20 pages. It was written independently of any class or assignment. After it was completed, I made quite a number of copies and stuffed them into the mailboxes of many and perhaps all of the RC instructors. For some odd reason, I never heard anything from any of them on the topic. Perhaps they were flummoxed. Perhaps it was trite.

During my years in the RC, many men, including a TA, propositioned me. The TA confessed to having fallen in love during a sit-in at the fortress-like Administration Building. I believe the sit-in lasted for two or three days. I can’t remember what we were protesting. I had to tell the TA that while he was very nice, I really wasn’t attracted to men. It became something of a mantra.

Unfortunately, my luck with men was inversely proportional to my success with co-eds. My first and most spectacular failure occurred in my freshman year. I invited an attractive woman I met while working in the dorm kitchen to dinner at a greasy spoon up the street. It was fall and chilly. When we arrived, I helped her take her jacket off and held her chair, as I had been raised to do. The derision I suffered for my appalling lack of, I don’t know - social consciousness? - haunts me still.

I enrolled in then mandatory intensive language program and studied German. I was not an apt language student. After failing the entrance exam for the study abroad program, I dropped out of school and with a little help from my unhappy Jewish parents, attended a three-month language program outside of Muenchen, at a Goethe Institute. Upon my return to the US, I reapplied for the foreign study abroad program and was accepted.

Ultimately, I became quite fluent and came to reverence modern German writers, especially Thomas Mann, Bertold Brecht, and Stefan Heym. Learning to speak and write fluent German was my first palpable accomplishment in life. It made me aware that lack of aptitude could be compensated for by shear determination and hard work. I wasn’t doomed to be a nincompoop.

On the other hand, to this day I do not understand how I managed to graduate from the U of M and the RC with a degree in creative writing (poetry) sans any ability to write non-academic material. Following graduation, I found that my academic writing skills were useless to potential employers. Moreover, my understanding of grammar was not impressive. My subsequent education at the hands of creative directors, editors, and clients was, on occasion, excruciatingly embarrassing. (One of my clients had to point out that a capital was not a Capitol.)

Nonetheless, aside from a few brief interludes, I have earned my living as a writer: copywriter, freelance writer, marcom consultant, tech writer, and now, as a simple corporate communications specialist. Although the world and its denizens’ doings have always fascinated me, I have never regretted this choice, nor ceased to enjoy playing with language. (If memory serves, one of the great Rabbis of the Roman era, Akiva, earned his living as a needle sharpener.)

Just before leaving the U of M, I discovered a passion for fine art that transformed my life and motivates me, still. A visit to the campus museum to see a photographic exhibit led to an encounter with an exhibit of German Expressionist graphic art. Never had I been so moved by any art form; for the very first time, I felt that the searing emotions trapped inside me were not unique to me. It was an enormous and profound gift.

Not very much later, though I had never, ever considered drawing or painting, I committed myself to creation of images in the hope that I might some day be able to communicate as powerfully to others, as the German Expressionists had to me. I might add that I felt myself drawn into a vortex that seemed to promise certain destruction, as I was unaware of any artist who had not starved or lived in misery. However, although I chose consciously, I chose as one who had no choice.

I continue to create visual artifacts - to put paintbrush to canvas and to panel - and, even as I write this, I rue the time it has stolen from my studio. I sculpt, occasionally, too.

I appreciate the RC still; but over the years, my enthusiasm has waned. I believe that my instructors could have and should have been even more demanding. Although I’m not sure RC students would have accepted such stringent expectations. Grades were supposed to be meaningless while I attended the RC, and were replaced by written evaluations. At the time, both seemed like meaningful measures of accomplishment or ability.

Today, I see it differently. Good grade and bad grades, good evaluations or bad evaluations were treated as currency while I was a student. They are still, almost everywhere, as far as I can tell. But as experience as shown, that currency is worthless.

My failure to get good grades in German means nothing to anyone with whom I converse in German; or to the Buchhandlungen from which I purchase art catalogs. My terrific grades in statistics and calculus are also meaningless, as I recall not an iota of either, and couldn't just three days after final exams.

The only measure of success is the ability to do. So what if it takes a year, three years or 25 years to fully assimilate and master a given skill?

A single thrilling poem redeems ten thousand mediocre efforts.