md_final by WuK55gSH


									Major Dilemmas

   by Aaron Rath
    ALAIN BOSQUET: Do you ever laugh at Dalí when you are in the

SALVADOR DALÍ: How can I? Do I ever joke seriously? Do I tell
   extraordinary truths? Do jokes turn into truths? Aren't truths dreadfully
   childish? My zaniness can be substantial and the most profound
   substantiality can be pure humbug.

                                            Conversations with Dalí, pp. 79-80
                              Major Dilemmas: Introduction
      My name is Dale Martin. My friends call me Kwyjibo. It's a Simpsons thing. They consider
me the most likely to become a big, dumb, balding, North-American ape, just like Homer. My
friends are a little cynical, which is funny, because they're the brainwashed ones. I was, too, at
first, but I snapped out of it. Now my friends think I'm something of a lost cause. This hasn't
hurt our friendship any, because they can't get enough of lost causes; they search them out, in
fact. So I'm a perfect candidate for their continued pity and friendship: I'm a lost soul, a fallen
angel, and they're the light trying to coax me back with open arms. For my part, I put up with
them because they're my friends and they make me laugh, so-
      So I should back up for a moment. I haven't always been a disappointment to my peers. My
high school classmates--most of whom knew nothing about me other than a certain reputation
for braininess and perhaps a glimmering of my penchant for dispensing odd thoughts--
concluded that I, among all of them, was most likely to eventually become rich, and printed that
opinion in the yearbook. I scoffed at the idea then, wondering how even casual acquaintances
could misjudge me that badly. As a young radical bent upon finding the answers and saving the
world, money meant nothing to me. It's a common quip that one's salary is inversely
proportional to the moral value of the work one does; teachers and social workers scrape by
while corporate lawyers make a killing. My priority was to find something dreadfully significant
with which to occupy myself. As a would-be savior of the world, I resigned myself to expect a
meager but fulfilling existence. And this would be fine. Libraries are free, after all, and who
really needs anything other than an unlimited supply of books and the ability to rent an
occasional ancient, PG-rated movie? What value had gold that it could tip the scales against
even the tiniest pinch of soul? Intangible though it may be, the soul is heavy, heavy stuff.
      So it was that I left high school with the impression that I was not well known, but at least
everyone expected me to do well--by their standards, of course.
      Now, four years spent with another batch of classmates, I have once again been voted (less
formally, I admit, though this time by those closest to me) that I am most likely to sell my soul
to corporate America. Again this amounts to a show of confidence that I am on the track to great
      So now I leave college believing that this time around my friends indeed know me well, but
they expect me to lead a life devoid of social value.
      Oberlin College deserves most of the credit for this transformation. My thanks go to my
alma mater for my enlightenment, though I suspect that it would distress anyone there who reads
these words, but-
      But I think there's still hope; for me, for my friends, for the College.
      Hope. Oberlin is all about hope. But really, it's not just hope. It's more than hope. (Oberlin--
and I--also frequently correct and contradict ourselves.) Oberlin starts with hope, and uses its
enlightened desires to shape its actions. It strives to make the world better, beautiful. At its most
basic, that's Oberlin: having vision and taking steps to make that vision reality.
      Oberlin believes in making the world a better place. The students recognize that nearly
everything can be improved, and find it imperative to do so. The place is awash in liberalism,
oozing with ideals. It champions the causes of liberty, equality, and acceptance. It strives to
make the world Right. Collectively, it searches out potential for beauty, balance, and joy. It
wants to find what's wrong and fix it, to take what's merely good and craft from it something
excellent. The message and the belief are pure and simple and good. Life can be fair. The world
can be clean. Joy can abound, wonder waits to be discovered. There are truths out there which
can be learned and shared with others; there is a meaning and purpose to life, to the world.
"Learning and Labor" is the school motto: Discover what the world has to give you and then use
it. Obies want to create a world that they can live in with pride.
      "Think one person can change the world? So do we." Those are the first words Oberlin
offered to me. The quote appeared in their recruitment brochure more than four years ago--white
letters hovering in inky blackness above a photograph of the globe. I knew immediately it would
be my kind of place, and-
      And then I arrived.
      In high school, I was recognized as one of the unusual ones. Smart, but quirky. I'd leave
"deep thoughts" posted on my homeroom chalkboard, or strange queries along the lines of "A
billion trucks or a trillion bucks? Why is obvious, but tell me when." With my quirks I usually
strove for educational value as well as entertainment.
      But at Oberlin, far stranger than I roamed the halls. Guys in long hair and dresses; women
with shaved heads, sporting armpit hair to put mine to shame; folks with padded swords beating
each other senseless in the halls; other folks with mystery drugs rendering themselves senseless
in their rooms; students sprouting piercings and multicolored hair, swathed in cloaks, jeans, tie-
dyes, kimonos, rubber, duct tape, and other unidentifiable fabrics; students toting backpacks,
frisbees, feathered staffs, plastic lunch boxes with smiley-face stickers, hemp pouches, pink
ribbons, red ribbons, rainbow ribbons, yellow ribbons, black ribbons, scarves in August, sandals
in January, and more books than can be enumerated here or elsewhere. During an eclipse, a man
in a black cloak assailed us with a sign declaring, "The end is near!" On safe sex nights at the
'Sco students wore nothing at all. It took flow charts and diagrams to explain which foods
various individuals would and would not eat. Heterosexual couples with lengthy, stable
relationships drew amazed looks, while students wandering the halls in bathrobes at 4 a.m. or 6
p.m. were accepted with nary a raised eyebrow. A letter to the editor of the Oberlin Review
about beach sand erosion in Argentina could receive fair and respectable coverage, and-
      And so on.
      And then there were those who were truly over the line: the nervous breakdowns, the
attempted suicides, the dropouts. Of course, in a place that purportedly reveres and validates all
alternative lifestyles, saying there is a line could draw knee-jerk, rapid-fire accusations of
blasphemy. If someone wants to sleep days and work nights, live purely on organic vegetables
that begin with letters in the second half of the alphabet, practice tantric yoga in the hallways,
listen to his music backwards, and spend his spare time collating a list of suspected health-
endangering contaminants in potato chips, more power to him. As long as he doesn't raise an
issue to which someone else has a "strenuous objection," it's nobody's business. [Footnote:
strenuous objections were necessary in Oberlin to call out that which somebody found
unbearable, as opposed to general objections, which almost everyone had for almost everything.
Regular objections didn't stop anything, they were just complaints. Strenuous objections were
code for "stop it now."]
      If I sound like an outraged grandparent complaining to Reader's Digest, bemoaning today's
youth culture, you misunderstand my point. I'm not outraged, not at all. I am not disgusted or
disturbed by any of these people or their lifestyle choices. Actually, I think that all of these
individuals are wonderful, valid bundles of self-expression. I love that they were all at Oberlin.
      The overall consensus was Oberlin contained a collection of nearly 3000 souls, all striving
to their utmost to shout in unison, "I AM UNIQUE!" The irony of mass individuality was not
lost on me, and in response I found myself more and more frequently passing up opportunities to
be intriguingly quirky. It would have been a waste of effort. And once I was aware of the
situation, I could not in good conscience strive to be different. Perhaps, by deciding to accept
my normalcy, one could argue I was actually being different, but that's a load of intellectual
crap. Pure and simple, I just wasn't going to clamor along with the throngs in hopes of
discovering true individuality.
      Other contradictions began to become apparent. I quickly learned of the pervading
cynicism, the general frustration, the everpresent urgency of homework, the universal sense that
nothing was really being done. We became practiced at preaching to the converted, learned the
art of arguing semantics with each other, and reveled in finding failings in each other's
philosophies. "Everything is tolerated here," it was often quipped, "--except intolerance." And
with that wobbly card, it felt like the entire house came down. It was a paradox on such a scale
that the whole ideal came into question.
      Oberlin may be all about hope, but the school also gets bogged down. A classic Oberlin
contradiction. It's a place where everyone knows life can be beautiful, and everybody has a plan
to make it so, but nobody agrees with anyone else. Some, like me, recognize they don't have all
the answers--not that such knowledge leaves us any better off. We find ourselves just as much at
odds with the world as do the rest.
      Part of the problem is that it's impossible to be aware of a concept without also being aware
of its opposite. Invoking one evokes the equal and opposite response as well. The yin and yang
of religion, the force and counter-force in physics, literary contrasts, musical counterpoints,
artistic contrasts, the demmycrap and repooplican of politics; dualisms prevail. By creating such
a powerful source for hope, Oberlin invokes an equally forceful hopelessness. Cynicism runs
rampant. For all the lofty goals and good intentions, it brings upon itself its share of concurrent
      Oberlin wants to do everything, and the average student only gets four years to make that
work, if he wants to see the results. But so few worthy causes can be championed in four short
years. Is it any wonder we get frustrated? With so many causes, some of them at cross-purposes
to each other, is it surprising we're demoralized when we see no progress? When our hearts are
brimming with hope, can you blame us if now and again a little is spilled to the ground and lost?
When a handful of inspired students take on the whole of the world, they're bound to be crushed
again and again and again. And again. The sting of defeat multiplies until it becomes difficult to
see the point in trying. We set ourselves up to take losses, and we know it. The choices are to
harden yourself to the pain, to give up trying, or to shelter yourself behind cynicism and keep a
disparaging distance from the others' efforts.
      Me, I quickly gave up. I lost all the answers I thought I had when I plunged into philosophy.
I lost confidence in things so fundamental I didn't even know they could be questioned, until the
moment they were cast into doubt. The meaning of life was aeons beyond my grasp. With a task
like that weighing on my shoulders, whether or not it was moral to eat red meat became small
change in my philosophical piggybank. I couldn't even presume to know the details--you can't
give directions to the nearest gas station when you're still trying to figure out what state you're
in. Confused and lost, I stopped trying to sort out the world. All that vibrant hope I brought with
me to Oberlin was leeched away within a month of my arrival.
     I wasn't even aware of the process as it happened. It just gradually sank in over the course
of several years that I no longer believed in or cared about any of the things that had meant so
much to me when I arrived at my dorm that fateful August day, four years ago. Looking back on
it now, though, I can see the process began almost immediately.
                              Chapter the First: Beginnings
     I came to Oberlin College with everything I thought I needed: my name, my Social Security
number, a large red Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (tenth edition), a brand new
Macintosh Performa 405 computer, a backpack, clothes, some cheap plastic dishes (two of
everything, for those romantic, in-room dinners I was sure to be hosting), a couple of posters,
and a headful of ideals and dreams.
     I still have the dictionary; everything else was irrelevant by the end of my first semester.
Surprisingly, my name was the first to go.
     "Martin Dalí? Everyone must ask you if you're related to the artist?" It was a statement, but
the residential coordinator's sentence was laden with question marks. Not waiting for a reply, the
RC scratched the name that wasn't mine off her list and shuffled through a stack of papers,
presumably searching for the files associated with that particular stranger's name.
     "It's Dale Martin," I assured her, trying to be friendly. She was the first Obie I'd met, and I
wanted it to go well. Besides, she was cute: dark tan skin, hair and eyes so black they almost
glowed, strongly arabic features. Despite being visibly dampened from the sweltering heat of the
afternoon, she remained cheerful, no sign of wilting. Anna, her name tag claimed.
     "Hmm. All I've got is a Martin Dalí. Must be a typo. You should clear that up with Res.
Life." Unruffled, Anna shuffled through some more papers, producing a key and a packet that
she handed over. "Here you go. You're room 421. Top floor. The packet's got a map of the
campus and a schedule for orientation. You need to go to the gymnasium, marked here, for
registration and to get your student ID. You need it to get into the dorms and for meals." Anna
jabbed a finger at a red circle on the map. Then, with the speed of a cardsharp, she flipped
through the ream of paper. "The white page is a room status report. Look around your room and
mark this sheet if there's any damage so you don't get charged for it. Your RC will go over
everything with you. The yellow sheet is a map of the dorm. The grey packet is the student
handbook. Here's a list of dining hall schedules. The orange page has information about your
email account. And this is the first-year facebook. Just sign here, and you're all set. Welcome to
     "Thanks," I said, juggling papers, backpack, and room key as I signed and turned to go.
     "It was nice to meet you, Martin!" she shouted after me.
     "Dale," I mumbled around the purple sheet I had stashed in my mouth wile signing the
other forms.
     I staggered down the hall. Three flights of stairs later, I collapsed against the door,
breathless. I'd only been out of the car's air conditioning for a couple of minutes, and already I
was starting to sweat. The whole dorm was muggy, but the top floor was especially reminiscent
of a jungle. I could only imagine what another seven or eight trips between my car and the upper
floor, weighted down with the majority of my earthly belongings, would do to me. I put down
my backpack and the papers and wiped the sweat from my nose. That's the part of me that
sweats first, for whatever reason. One of my personal biological unsolved mysteries. My parents
always joked I must be part dog, before proceeding to speculate from which side of the family
the canine genes originated. The inevitable argument usually kept them on bad terms for days,
     But that was another place and time; I was in college and on my own, now, and had neither
parent to comment upon my moistened schnoz. I dug out my key, readying myself to open the
portal into my college career. A piece of golden construction paper was taped to the door.
"Welcome, Martin Dalí!" was written in black, eight-inch letters on it. Someone had skillfully
sketched in blue ink the image of a melting stopwatch upon a concrete block, just below the
name that was not mine. I wondered if just maybe, in some great and cosmic coincidence, a
Martin Dalí had applied to the College and somehow I'd received his acceptance letter by
mistake. Not very likely, although-
     Although the College seemed incapable of correctly spelling my nine-letter name, they had
absolutely no problem at all with that of my roommate, Ixthyaki Ramanaharayanan. He was the
son of a Japanese philosopher and an Indian neurosurgeon, and undoubtedly one of the most
intelligent individuals ever to stroll the hallowed, henpecked, haywire halls of Oberlin College.
His name seems not no unusual now, but at that moment I could only stare in disbelief. Printed
neatly on a white banner immediately below my golden one, it was a monstrous sprawl of a
name that stretched across the entire width of the door and would have gone beyond if not for its
being tilted at a somehow rakish angle.
     Over the years, I've found many reasons to hold a grudge against Ixthyaki, but the first
began at that moment, when I became convinced (and correctly so) that every inch of that
impossible, gargantuan appellation was spelled impeccably. It galled me to no end that the
College could somehow manage to wrestle that abomination of a name down onto a page, but
they couldn't find their way to pecking out a simple Dale Martin without screwing it up. Clearly,
my roommate was in no way responsible for the error, but without even meeting the man I was
already developing an inclination not to like him.
     I reached out for the door, key in hand, when the portal to room 421 opened up in front of
me. Startled, I uttered a shout at the dark-skinned, dark-eyed young man who studied me,
unruffled and smiling. His ancestry gave him an exotic, handsome blend of Eastern features, but
his accent was immaculately American, with perhaps the faintest hint of something British and
     "You must be Martin," he said, extending a hand. He had a pleasant, firm grip. "I'm
Ixthyaki; just call me Ish. It's a pleasure to meet you. Come on in. Can I give you a hand?"
     "Oh, no. I'm fine. There's more, but I'll get it later. It's mice to neat you. I mean, nice to
meet you." I chuckled nervously at my tangled tongue. I couldn't predict it then, but I would
soon develop a lengthy romance with that particular habit.
     Disregarding my mis-speech, Ish gave me a whirlwind tour of our room. It consisted of two
beds, two desks, two chairs, one end-table, two dressers, two small bookshelves mounted on the
wall, a small closet, and a mirror on the door. So this was where I would live for the next nine
months. The space seemed frightfully small and awfully short on privacy. I'd had my own
bedroom since I was eight, when my parents moved to Tallahassee to teach at FSU. There was
plenty of time to worry about that later, I told myself. I'd adjust. It couldn't be impossible, or
they wouldn't give us rooms like this.
     Boxes sprawled across one set of bed, dresser, desk, and chair. "If you have any preference,
I'm more than happy to reorganize my things," Ish said. "I didn't want to unpack until you had a
chance to agree to the layout."
     "Oh, this is fine. Thanks, though. That's very thoughtful."
     "You're welcome. Are you sure I can't help you carry anything in? You have more
     "It's in my car. But I'd rather get it later, when it's a little cooler. Spread it out over the
course of the day, so I don't overdo it all at once."
     Ixthyaki nodded sagely. "That sounds eminently reasonable. If you need any assistance, I'd
be more than willing to help, Martin."
     "It's Dale Martin, actually. I think there was a typo somewhere. I've got to get that fixed at
Residential Life."
     "Oh, my apologies. How embarrassing, calling you by the wrong name."
     "Don't worry," I said. "You couldn't know. It's the College's mistake. People must screw up
your name now and again?"
     "Not really, no. What makes you think so?"
     Was he kidding? With that impossible X sitting there in the middle of the tongue-twisting
sprawl, pretending for all the world like it's an innocuous "sh" instead? I still think it had to be a
joke, but Ish didn't give a single clue that it might be, then or later. I gazed at him a moment,
eyebrows hoisted. Ish seemed to be completely serious. After the incident with the door, this
was more than I could handle. Ridiculous. Who was this guy, anyway? I floundered with a
     "Oh, ah ... it seems like people mess up almost everyone's name now and again. I mean,
how tough is Dale Martin, and look what's happened to it. With your longer and, um, less than
typical name, you'd think that someone would be bound not to recognize it, so they might
mispronounce it, because ..."
     I'd run out of all I had to say on the subject without beginning to repeat myself, so I tried to
stop, but Ish kept watching me, waiting for me to complete the sentence.
     "... because, well ... because doesn't it happen to everybody?" I finished lamely.
     "I suppose it does," he said, nodding in what could have been either affirmation or pity.
     Despite seeming genuinely pleasant, there was an air about Ish that set my teeth on edge.
Something inside me insisted that I couldn't ask him to help me move in any of my stuff; I'd
have to carry in every ounce of my belongings myself. I couldn't even move any of it while he
was around, because I could sense he was the kind of person who would insist on helping me,
no matter what he was doing. For the next two days, I relocated my belongings with the erratic
scurrying of a pack rat, dashing outside in odd moments during his short absences to grab a
handful of my things and returning to the room before Ixthyaki's helpful persona once again
made an appearance. Several clandestine shipments were brought into our room while he
showered. I timed many of the others immediately before or after meals, when I knew Ixthyaki
was safely occupied in the dining hall. The final load of books I brought in at four in the
morning while my roommate slept. When the whole ordeal was finished, I was half tempted to
discard my earthly possessions and become a monk, if only I could avoid ever having to
experience something like that again.
     But on that first afternoon, I simply put down my backpack and the miscellaneous papers
and called up my advisor's office.
     "English department," a woman's voice said.
     "Hi, my name's Dale Martin. I had an appointment to see my advisor, Professor James,
earlier this afternoon, but I got lost on my way here this morning and didn't get in till just now. I
was hoping I could re-schedule my appointment with him for later today or tomorrow."
     "Hmm. Dale Martin. I don't see you on his schedule. What time did you say your
appointment was?"
      "It was around two, I think. It might be under Martin Dalí. There was some mix up with
Residential, um, Life, I think."
      "Well why didn't you say so? Yes, I see you on the schedule. Martin Dalí, 1:30, actually.
Hmm. I think he's booked for the next couple of days. The next opening I have listed is Tuesday
at 10:30. That's still a few hours before your class add/drop period, so you shouldn't have any
problems. Is that good for you?"
      "Yeah, sure, that's fine."
      "Great. I'll put you down then, Martin."
      "Thanks, but it's ..."
      "Bye now."
      "Bye." I hung up the phone with quite a bit more force than was necessary, so that it
hummed and jangled faintly in the silence afterwards. From the chair where he was reading Ish
looked up at me, not with the suddenness of surprise but instead with a slow and measured
lifting of the eyes that implied mere observation, devoid of judgement. His pupils were only
barely visible against the inky backdrop of his dark irises. If he felt any startlement, no sign of it
escaped those murky depths.
      "If I want to get dinner I guess I have to enroll," I mumbled. "Have you done that yet?"
      "Yes, I arrived yesterday from San Francisco. Enrollment can take some time, so you
should hurry; enrollment ends for the day in half an hour. I was just about to go to dinner
myself. Would you like me to wait until you get back?"
      "Nah, don't worry about it. It'll probably take me a while if I need to get my name
straightened out. Go ahead and I'll catch up with you if I can. We're supposed to eat in ... where?
Stevenson? That's sorta across the street and down a little, right?"
      "Yes. The large building with the expansive windows. I've been eating in Griswold
Commons. It's the middle of the three dining areas. Hopefully I'll see you there."
      "Sounds good. And if not, I'm sure we'll have plenty of other chances to eat together. I'd
better run. Seeya." And with that I dashed out the door.
      Even then, something told me I would not spend many meals with Ish. There was a sense of
rivalry building, ruling out any chance of normal friendship. In the course of these pages, I may
occasionally refer to Ixthyaki as my nemesis. But it's not because I hate him; I'm not out to get
him. It's just that there are only two options when it comes to someone like Ish, someone who is
your complete superior in almost every way. There is no middle ground; there is no simply
becoming friends. You can become a follower and praise him and worship the wisdom he
grants, or you can pit yourself against him as an adversary, measure yourself by his standards,
and mark little notches against him to denote your progress. Use him as your whetstone, grind
yourself against him to make yourself all that much sharper. When blade and whetstone meet,
the whetstone remains all but untouched; it is the blade that is changed, that takes the brunt of
the force, and yet it is the blade that comes out better for it in the end. Intentionally or not, that's
the route I chose, and the last four years have been grueling because of it. Maybe it doesn't make
me the best person, but in my defense I can say that in all but the smallest ways I always played
fair, and Ixthyaki never once came out the worse for all that happened, so-
      So I found myself in a completely new and difficult environment, surrounded by a maze of
the unfamiliar, more alone than I'd ever been, and in my attempts to establish even preliminary
roots at Oberlin I was continually assaulted by a barrage of confusion about my own identity. Of
all places, I had expected Oberlin to be the last to make such an insensitive mistake, and yet the
RA, the secretary, the sign on the door, all persisted and assisted in continuing the farce, the--
dare I say--conspiracy? That Ish was the only one to accept my real name somehow made it
     Enrollment was no better.
     "I don't see a Dale Martin anywhere," said a tall, gangly man with an eyebrow ring and long
red hair pulled back into a ponytail.
     "I think someone made a mistake; my name's been showing up as Martin Dalí," I explained,
beginning to feel a sense of deja vu. The sensation was laced with a disturbing intimation of the
     "Oh, well you should probably talk to the Registrar's office. But for now you'll have to use
the line for A through F."
     "Okay, thanks," I said, not feeling in the least bit thankful. It had taken me ten minutes to
get through the first line, just to be redirected to another one. At least the A-F line (the AwFul
line?) was shorter. I was greeted by a petite Asian girl--no, wait, I told myself, this is Oberlin
now so I should say "woman"--with a smile the size of Ohio.
     "Martin Dalí? I'll need to see identification. Do you have a birth certificate and driver's
     "Yep, I've got both of them, but they've misspelled my name."
     "Hmm. You should probably talk to Residential Services. They'll put the changes on your
permanent ID. You're just getting a temporary one today, so I wouldn't worry about it."
     I produced the aforementioned papers anyway, to demonstrate the problem. "The thing is,
they've got my name completely backwards, and they've misspelled it."
     The woman's state-sized smile began to flicker a little. "I don't know. That's kinda far off. I
don't think I can give you an ID with the wrong name on it. Maybe you should get this cleared
up at Res. Services first."
     The clock on the back wall showed ten till six. "I don't think I have enough time to do that
tonight. Look, you can compare the address on file with the one on my driver's license. It's really
me. And my birth certificate has the same name as my license. Social Security number and
everything, just like your file. I need the ID to get back into the dorm, don't I?"
     "Yeah, but someone will be watching the dorms all night for new arrivals, so you shouldn't
have any trouble getting in." That wonderful smile was wavering, teetering on the brink of
     "I need the card to get supper, too. I was counting on being able to eat at the dining hall. I
just drove up from Florida and I'm almost out of cash." The woman demonstrated she could
frown as big as Ohio, too. "Look, it's just a temporary card. I promise I'll go get things cleared
up tomorrow, and it'll all be worked out before they give me my real ID. I can't use the thing off-
campus, can I, so it can't possibly hurt anything."
     "I guess that makes sense," she said after a pause. "Okay, here's your temporary card. Just
go over to that other line and get your picture taken, and you'll be set. Don't forget to talk to Res.
Services about your name, Martin."
     It seemed easier to let the issue drop than to correct her. The smile had returned, and I
wasn't about to endanger it again. The collapse of a smile that size could disrupt weather
patterns, spawning freakish wind storms and drastically diminishing the amount of warmth in
the room.
     "Thanks a lot. I will." Oh, I'd give them a good talking to, I would.
     It was twenty past six when I finally got out of the gym with my new fake ID. When did the
dining hall close? Six-thirty, maybe? I didn't know. And I didn't feel like running back there to
find out. There was plenty of time ahead to become acquainted with the various forms of
campus dining: Stevenson stomach, the Dascomb hurtlocker, the Talcott intestinal twist, and so
on. Despite what I'd said to the Asian woman, I had some cash left over from the drive up; I was
just hoping to hold on to it a little while longer, but a guy's gotta eat. I found my way to
downtown Oberlin--which sprawls across the length of just a single city block--and looked over
my options. Surrounded by the obscure (Obie-scure?) and the unfamiliar, I opted for the
universally unappealing Pizza Hut, living proof that you don't have to be good to be successful.
Perhaps there were several deep-seated reasons for settling upon that particular establishment:
     1) The aforementioned familiarity of chain-type restaurants.
     2) Pizza is the archetypical college food, and I, brandishing laminated (if inaccurate) proof
        of my studentship, felt obligated to begin my participation in popular college culture.
        Blue jeans and a sweatshirt--the stereotypical college outfit--couldn't be far behind. And
        all-nighters. Honestly, adrenaline pulsed through my veins at the mere thought that I
        might soon have a valid excuse to spend an entire night awake. The witching hour called
        to me, the wee hours tempted me, the experience of a groggy-eyed sunrise on a dewy
        morning whispered tantalizing sweet nothings to my soul. Ah-
         Ah, but my story drifts away. It may do that from time to time. Because within the
         larger story is always some other smaller story, and the smaller story can always expand
         to encapsulate the larger. So often they blend together that one cannot be separated from
         the other--telling one portion of the story is impossible without telling portions of
         others. It's all very much like a fractal. Fractals were hugely popular in the fall of 1993.
         Mathematics turned visual turned beautiful. The experts claim math has always been
         beautiful, but it took someone with a good computer to convince the common man. The
         simplest patterns enthralled me in high school; a video of slowly mutating fractal forms
         tripped me out years before I first considered experimenting with hallucinogens.
                                 One of the simplest fractals is a squared-off spiral, with straight
        sides and right-angle turns. Just draw a line segment, then rotate 90 degrees (to the right,
        say) and draw another line segment that's 90 percent as long. Repeat, ad infinitum, or
        until the lines come so close together that the pencil lead becomes one thick blob in the
        center. That's a basic fractal, and frankly, that's basically my story, too. Begin heading in
        one direction, but before you get there turn away at 90 degrees and 90 miles an hour
        towards a new goal, and before you get to that spot turn away yet again. Lather, rinse,
        repeat. Eventually, after a number of turns you find yourself going in your original
        direction again, and for a few brief moments you think you're back on track, but then you
        notice you've really shifted a bit to one side and you're not heading precisely toward the
        exact same destination. Before you have time to ponder this, though, you're whiplashed
        off to someplace else again, continuing to drift. Futile as it sounds, perhaps there's some
        merit to this path after all, if you take the time to notice that while you're running around
        in circles and think you're going to all these other places, you're also slowly zeroing in on
        some point that's really at the center of it all. The twisting pattern takes you down a long
        road, along a path that never directly indicates your destination. But at some point, when
        the turns get tight enough and your scope is broad enough, you suddenly find yourself
        rooted firmly in the center of the pattern.
                                 Perhaps some day someone will write a story in perfect fractal
         form. Until then, this is my offering to that undiscovered art form. Like the television
         shown within a television, the shows overlap and enhance each other. There is not one
         level, but two. Or are there perhaps more? Watch as they interact. Watch as the fractal
         spirals back out again, and you see not math but a student who studies math. Spiral out
         once more, and see the student, hungry, enjoy the process of adopting stereotypical
         student behavior by choosing pizza. Yet another step would take you forward in time, to
         that same student, writing now his thoughts on that day four years ago. Watch as he
         explains what he now recalls as the swiftly fading newness of the Oberlin experience,
         but which at the time seemed to be an entirely fresh and unwilted newness.
           Perhaps, though, that is one too many levels of perspective for the moment. Let us turn
          back inward and downward, to the remaining rationales that helped me decide on Pizza
          Hut for my first meal in Oberlin:
      3) There was a free table, unlike most of the other crowded sit-down restaurants along the
      4) I'd already hit a McDonalds and a Subway (the only other national chains I'd noticed in
         Oberlin) for breakfast and lunch, respectively, and the Rax in Oberlin remained hidden
         by the obscurity of the unbeaten path.
      5) Sometimes, when the world throws enough crap in your direction, a true smartass will
         take a stand and dare the world to bring it on. Eating at Pizza Hut is one such move. Bad
         food, bad service, and bad digestion: All are very real risks. By the end of the meal I'd
         experienced the first two and was on my way to making the acquaintance of the third.
      After dinner, I went for a walk to explore my surroundings. The sun floated low on the
horizon: looming, inflamed, tinting the air red and the shadows blue-green. From across the
expanse of the great plains to the west, a slight puff of a breeze played lightly through the streets
of Oberlin, pulling me back towards its source. Not unlike the mist-scent in cartoons that latches
onto the nostrils of the characters and leads them to the dinner table, in this case it was the hint
of evening coolness and the rustle of leaves that pulled me westward.
      I walked north to the corner of Main and College, turned left in front of the bank and
crossed the street to the SuperX drug store and the "Welcome to downtown Oberlin" signpost. If
I'd looked south I could have seen its twin at the next light down, but I was busy drifting west.
Past the commercial district, past a two-story building of white concrete--a sign informed me it
was our world-famous conservatory of music--past the last traffic light I'd see that day, past
Talcott and King and Dascomb and Harkness, all buildings unknown to me at the time. Filled
with people, empty of memories, just the opposite of how they stand now.
      Students and parents crawled across the grounds, mapping out the little ant farm we had all
chosen to call home for the next few years. From a distance, I tried to glean some sense of the
student body. Would all of my interactions go the way of my conversations with Ish and the
enrollment staff? The students who passed me on the sidewalk didn't look threatening. Strange
faces surrounded me, but as a whole the group seemed surprisingly normal. Where was the in-
your-face alternative living? I could have gone to high school with any these people, or so it
seemed on the surface. Some of them even looked like people I used to know. (A handful of
conversations would begin to demonstrate the enormous intellectual difference between Obies
and my high school classmates, but that wouldn't become apparent until later.) The parents all
looked like parents: nondescript older people who I'd be uncomfortable talking to just because
they were ... well, "adults." Some were fussing dramatically over everything, others were quietly
letting their kids talk and explore. It looked like what the first day of college was supposed to
look like, and it was reassuring.
      Outside of the dorm I would soon know as Harkness, several of my peers sat on the low
brick wall that fronts the building. One woman was teaching a man how to play Dust in the
Wind on a guitar, while two students listened. A lovely song; another good omen.
      Confusion over my name notwithstanding, I liked the place already. The night was
beautiful, and the campus looked exactly like the imaginary college in my head I had always
pictured myself attending. I contemplated the unlimited potential surrounding me. Somewhere
within a few minutes' walk were the people who would be my friends. There were a thousand
potential girlfriends, all within a mile of me. That mile's radius circumscribed the zone where I
would spend my time, have my fun, drink my beer, dabble in sex and drugs and genres of music
that I'd never even heard of. This was where I would learn what I needed to know to get on in
the world. Hope was strong in me then. This place was my means to changing the world, and I'd
finally made it here!
      Onward and westward I went, soaking it all in. The houses, street signs, a new maze to call
my Home. I was mildly lost now, but comfortably trusting of my ability to learn. Beyond
campus, in the residential section of town kids played in yards, young folk and old folk alike
nodded greetings from sidewalks and porches. Passersby smiled, birds chirped, squirrels
scampered, and the sun sank softly, slowly, into the serenity of evening.
      First the shadows of the houses of the west drifted across to caress goodnight their
neighbors to the east, while the outlines of impassive trees stretched high and yawned a
welcome to the end of the day's immobility and the beginning of the night's rest. The shadows of
small things stretched out in their own small lots to relax for the night. Birds drifted down from
the sky, but only silhouettes took roost in the trees. Crickets began the first tuning of their
strings. An itinerant lightning bug practiced his illuminated dance steps behind the dark side of a
toolshed. And slowly the shadows stretched further, yawned harder, and nuzzled against each
other in their attempts to make themselves comfortable, until finally the shadow of the earth
raised itself up and settled back down onto the landscape like a blanket of the finest silk,
tangible only through the faintest cooling caresses against my skin.
      Far in the distant east, a single bright red dot of ballooning cloth hovered in the sunlit
cloudless blue, not yet ready to settle down onto the night's cover.
      The sights and the sounds seemed to murmur a welcome to me. "We're glad you made it.
Come on in, take your shoes off, relax. Make yourself at home, Martin."
      "Dale," I replied quietly into the evening's calm.
      I found my way back to my dorm eventually, panicking only a little towards the end when I
wasn't sure I'd make it back before complete darkness, knowing I was totally unprepared to try
to find my dorm without the light of day. But Oberlin is small, and even a long, slow walk can't
take you too far away if you stay within the city limits. Walking in Oberlin is much like my
fractal maze: You have to keep twisting and turning to avoid finding yourself on a rural highway
with only soybeans and animals for company. This isn't to say that the place is really that
microscopic; most students probably never see a field except through the glass of their
windshields. But if you're at all adventurous or like to walk, the town limits are quite close.
      It took a minute at the door to figure out how to work the validine, a.k.a. my student ID.
Eventually I got it oriented right, pulled it at the right speed, and also managed to grab the door
before it locked again, all in one reasonably smooth motion. Safely inside, I took a moment to
look at the card. There was a strangely distant expression on my face, resulting from the
woman's insistence that I turn to the side. I looked a little lost--perhaps physically, perhaps just
in my own thoughts. The way the lighting had been set up, my ears cast a shadow against the
backdrop, giving the impression that I wore my hair much longer in back. Besides the name that
wasn't mine, my signature, and my birth date, the card also had a nine-digit number referred to
as my "meal card number." 900-30-4213. I wasn't sure what it was good for, but it had come up
on a couple of the papers I filled out at enrollment. I'd just spent the last nine months scribing a
barrage of numbers across a flood of papers: Social Security, driver's license, addresses, phone
numbers, SAT scores, class ranks, financial aid reports, and more. Just today I'd received a room
number, a new address, a mailbox number, a lengthy combination for said box, and a schedule
with an array of course numbers and room numbers. And this was after being on the road for
two days, so that my head was still aswirl with gas prices, food costs, mileage, highway
numbers, exit numbers, and travel times. The last thing I wanted was another nine digits
jammed in my cranium.
      A light tapping on the glass behind me caught my attention. I turned to find a young man
standing outside the door, smiling broadly. He gestured towards the door and said something I
couldn't make out through the muffling influence of glass and aluminum, but his intentions were
clear. I slipped the ID into my pocket and opened the portal to let him and his parents, who had
been standing off to one side, into the dorm.
      "Thanks," he said, grinning--if possible--even more broadly. The man had dark hair, an
aquiline nose, and a prominent chin. He seemed very friendly, offering me his hand in thanks for
that relatively minor service, before launching into a monologue as we began to climb the stairs.
"I left my validine in my room. I'm so glad you were here, otherwise who knows how long we
might have had to wait for someone to let us in. They said there would be people watching the
doors but I don't see anyone. It's funny, I've only been here a couple of hours and already I'm
leaving stuff behind. I guess I'll have to start remembering what to take with me eventually. I'm
just so excited to be here. It's all so new. I'm Seth, by the way, and these are my parents. We just
got in a couple of hours ago and--oh, wait, I think this is my floor. Thanks again for letting us in,
I really appreciate it. Take care, I'm sure I'll see you around."
      What a whirlwind! It wasn't until I'd climbed another flight of steps that I realized I'd never
even given him my name. Other than that, I was satisfied with the interaction. It was nice to
know I could have a conversation with someone at Oberlin without becoming disgruntled.
Maybe life here would be agreeable after all. I ascended the remainder of the stairs with a smile
on my face.
      The walk had been settling, the sunset amazing. The air had cooled enough that I--with my
thin Florida blood--found it very comfortable. It's hard to hold a grudge when the world's being
that kind. My stomach sent some complaints up the nervous system command chain, but it
wasn't anything to write home about. It would take a couple of weeks of dining hall living
before my stomach lining was reduced to the state of continual aggravation that I would come to
know so intimately.
      I was even feeling better about my roommate whose parents had broken all the unspoken
rules of nomenclature and somehow escaped unscathed. The sign on the door made me chuckle
to myself. Amazing, that I could have been so offended earlier. What is in a name, after all?
      Then I opened the door to my room. Ish had unpacked and settled in, and it looked like he'd
been assisted by a horde of fanatic Army nurses. The entire room had been dusted, vacuumed,
disinfected and squared away at right angles. I could almost hear beams from the overhead light
squeaking clean across the tops of our dressers. White sheets gleamed at the top of the bed
where they peeked out from around the fringes of a tasteful forest green bed cover. A thin and
carefully pressed pillow rested headboard-side-center atop the entire ensemble, which appeared
to have been starched, creased, and ironed into place. His bookshelf was organized by height,
from left to right, top to bottom. Four pictures, neatly framed and filling just under half of the
available wall space, depicted nature scenes. One was decidedly Japanese--a very vertical
traditional Zen painting of a mountain, stream, and monastery, complete with a meditating
master. Another consisted of the towering, snowcapped peaks of the Himalayas. The other two I
didn't recognize. They were both images of the same wooded valley: one a photograph of
brilliant spring verdance and the other a painting in stunning autumn finery. Later I found out
that Ixthyaki lived near the valley and that my roommate was the author of both images. A
computer whirred quietly on his otherwise-empty desk, its screen very serenely cycling through
a series of distinctive fractal shapes. From the floor, a miniature refrigerator hummed in
      The last of my roommate's visible belongings rested atop the fridge: a miniature rock
garden, complete with sand, small stones, and a tiny rake. A squarish spiral pattern worked its
way in from the edges to the center, smaller spirals whorling around and near the rocks. It was
Ish's only possession that was any fun, and he never once touched the thing. I burned to play
with that little sandbox; wasted hours staring wistfully into its willing, pliable surface; dreamt
about it. But I couldn't bring myself to ask why he never changed it, even though he stared at it
every morning and evening as he meditated from his bed. He clearly liked it that way. Maybe
he'd found the perfect pattern, an idea that intrigued me. Maybe it meant something to him. It
didn't do anything for me, except that I gradually developed an intense desire to destroy it.
During slow classes I would trace out that pattern on my notepaper, just so I could scribble it out
or wad it up afterwards. I'm thinking of having it tattooed onto the flesh of my stomach. The
process of my body's aging will destroy it naturally, until it melts and stretches into something
unrecognizable and satisfying. Sometimes I trace out variants of my own, but so far I have yet to
find an image with any personal significance. My friend Leon, in a fit of inspired paranoiac-
mania suggested that I invest in a pair of tweezers and slowly rearrange the pattern, just a grain
or two a day, and see if he noticed. But the thing was, I couldn't bring myself to touch the rock
garden. It possessed an aura of sanctity that made tampering unthinkable.
      Ixthyaki's entire half of the room exuded that same aura, to a lesser extent. The sensation
was there, but more mild.
      In the aftermath of that sudden initiation to my roommate's dumbfounding, inhuman
cleanliness, I could only stare in disbelief.
      I glared at the room before me. Clearly, I was relegated to the slovenly role for the year.
There was no way, no fucking way, that I could approach that level of neatness. Even at that
moment, with only a backpack's contents spilled on my bed and some papers scattered on my
desk, shame crept over me. Give up now, the voice of inevitability whispered in my head.
Rationality countered: Maybe when the school year begins, maybe when things get busy and the
paper starts flying, maybe he'll loosen up a little. Really, I should have known better.
     Struggling with an overwhelming sense of dismay, the snick of a door closing behind me in
the hall failed to register in my consciousness. I edged backwards through the doorway like a
man at a party who stumbles drunkenly into what he thinks is his friend's room, only to find a
mass of humanity, writhing and sinister, performing unspeakable acts on the carpet. Acts
involving leather and chains and small animals.
     Back out the door I went, straight into the soft, slender, superb arms of Ginevra Montaigne.
I didn't know it then, but heaven flowed around me for an instant. Then adrenaline kicked in and
I stepped away and back into the mortal plane. Oh fickle fortune, to provide us our hearts' desire
before the desire is formed, and to allow the very act that removes us from our blessed state be
the one that awakens the desire itself. Cruel, cruel.
     "Oh!" I shouted, springing forward, spinning into the door frame.
     "Easy there, killer," said a voice like a river, flowing and mellow and full. An angel stood
in front of me: black hair, blue eyes, tall, and smiling perversely. Slowly her look turned more
earnest. I must have looked unwell. Undoubtedly my face expressed a confusing variety of
emotion all at once: pure startlement, added to the grim unease spawned by the state of my
room, blended with an intoxicated rapture as I found myself becoming smitten. "Hey, are you
     I rubbed my arm, apparently no damage done, and composed myself. "Oh, yes, fine. I'm
really sorry about that. I should look where I'm going. Say, I was just about to elope to Vegas,
but I seem to be short one bride. You doing anything this evening?" Rumors of rampant
lesbianism be damned, I had to find out if this woman was available. Waiting another breath
was too long.
     She laughed, smiled, eyes sparkling. My spirit soared, danced a jig on the moon. "Sorry, I'm
taken." Spirits are not constrained by the laws of physics; mine plummeted from the heights at a
rate that put lightspeed to shame. "Unless, of course, you're talking about one of those Elvis
     "Elvis, the Dalai Lama--whatever it takes."
     "Hmm, tempting. You get runner up. I'm Ginevra, the CRO for the floor." She held out her
hand, which I took gratefully. I cursed inwardly that we don't have the good fortune of living in
those golden days when it was acceptable for a gentleman to raise a lady's hand to his lips in
     "What's a CRO?"
     "We work with the Residential Coordinators to sorta keep an eye on the dorms. You know,
help the newcomers acclimate themselves to the place and then keep all of the residents happy
for the rest of the year. Stuff like that."
     "You must be Martin Dalí, right?"
     "It's, ah-"
     "I'm your neighbor. I've met Ish, so you must be Martin. Process of elimination and all that.
I drew the clock on your welcome sign. Do you like it? Dalí's great! I'd love to have that name.
Everybody probably asks you if you're related to the artist."
     "The picture's great," I said. It really was well-executed, not to mention a charming gesture.
Now if only everyone would stop screwing up my name. I started to object, "But-"
     Somehow, even though I knew the picture was just a random act of kindness intended to
welcome some unknown new student, I couldn't help but interpret the artwork as a personal gift
from this attractive woman. Taking a grossly inappropriate reading of the situation, I convinced
myself that she already felt a connection with this "Martin Dalí," whoever that was supposed to
be. Aw, to hell with it, I thought. What's in a name, right? If she already likes Martin Dalí so
much, why not run with it? "But you'd be surprised, not many people ask about the artist."
     Just over four hours into college life, and I'd already lost my name.
     I asked, "So, is there some sort of consolation prize for being Ginevra's runner up?"
     "I was just about to round up any students who are in the hall and go over to the orientation
movie. It's being projected onto the side of Mudd, the library. They're showing The Wizard of
Oz. I don't know what they're thinking. 'Welcome to your first day at Oberlin, and now that
you're here we'd just like to remind you "There's no place like home."' Seems crazy to me. Oh,
well. Want to come along?"
     "Sure, sounds great. Just let me lock up the room." As I took out my keys, my validine
slipped out of my pocket and fell to the floor. Ginevra picked it up.
     "Pop quiz! What's your ID number?"
     "What? The dining number?"
     "Yeah. It's your student number. They use it here to identify you for everything."
     "Umm ... nine-hundred, something with a zero, something two something something. I
think. Or maybe it's something something two something? And I thought we just needed our
Social Security number. I had to memorize it for all the tests and applications."
     She shook her head. "Nah, they use a student ID number instead of the social security
number here. You were closer with the first guess. 900-30-4213. Memorize it. You'll use it all
the time. Yours should be, you know, pretty easy to memorize, at least. It's got three of the same
numbers as your room: 421."
     And thus my Social Security number was usurped just moments after my name. Not a
single sunrise had yet passed, and already two of the nine essentials I'd arrived at college with
had been replaced. For the reader's reference, I reiterate:

           I came to Oberlin College with everything I thought I needed: my name, my Social Security
      number, a large red Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (tenth edition), a brand new
      Macintosh Performa 405 computer, a backpack, clothes, some cheap plastic dishes (two of
      everything, for those romantic, in-room dinners I was sure to be hosting), a couple of posters, and a
      headful of ideals and dreams.
           I still have the dictionary ...

      Of the remaining items, the dishes were broken or stolen from the kitchen, one by one, until
all that remained was one cracked plate and two spoons. They never saw the light of a candle,
nor anything more romantic than late-night ramen noodles for one. The backpack took one look
at my intro Physics tome and gave up the ghost. I discarded it without a second thought and
bought a new one. After three faithful years of high school service, it deserved better. As for my
Performa 405, within two months of my arrival Seth from downstairs bought a machine--the
Performa 475--that was bigger, smarter, and five times as fast for less money, making my own
computing machine old and irrelevant. It has since been replaced. At about the two-month point
it also became clear that my Florida "cold weather" clothes would be woefully inadequate for
even an Ohio fall, so I acquired an entire new wardrobe through birthday presents (October 7!),
care packages, and parental concern. The day I found the campus poster sale, my old posters--
well-loved, creased corners, thumbtack holes, and all--hit the trash bin. I picked up a crisp, new
Ansel Adams, a snazzy, trippy fractal, a glow-under-blacklight castle, and, naturally, a Dalí. It's
one of the ones with the melting clocks, The Persistence of Memory. Ah, how well that title fits
me now: My friends are gone, my time here is done, but memory persists.
      The same is true of all those original possessions: Of them all only the dictionary remains.
In fact, I use it daily. It fits perfectly into the space where the missing fourth leg of my couch
should be. Connoisseurs will recognize that this, too, parallels the Simpsons.
      The last thing I had to lose were my ideals. That's a more complicated explanation, and
that's what the rest of this story is about, I think.
      In journalism, they always say that the "I think" is implied, that it's a waste of space better
left to more original words. But, honestly, in my opinion the "I think" should not always be left
out. Often times a fact is known. And just as often, the speaker desperately needs to realize that
his words are simply opinion and not necessarily the way of the world. It is most unwise to
discourage individuals from distinguishing between fact and opinion, and it can be just as
harmful to anyone who may be listening to such unclear and ill-considered speech. A listener
who asks the speaker for clarification or double-checks the facts will likely insult the speaker,
but a listener who acts on opinion as if it were fact is just as likely to discover unpleasant
      Is this premise absolutely true? Only a hypocrite would say it is decidedly so. Naturally, I
maintain that it might be, and certainly I believe it. Admitting opinion leaves room for
discussion, change, and improvement. Insisting opinion is fact leaves room only for fervent
argument. Or so I believe.
      With stories, as in life, we can spout all sorts of theories and plans only to find out in the
end that everything is different. All we can do is think we know our destination; it's not until
we've walked the winding path to its very end that we know for sure. Too many people believe
that thinking something must make it true, and that the path through the maze they intend to
take is by necessity the actual route they will follow to the end. I try not to rely upon that belief,
try to make it clear that what I believe I'm doing isn't necessarily what I am doing. Thus, the rest
of this story is about how I dumped my ideals in favor of becoming a kwyjibo. I think.
                  Chapter the Second: Friends and Early Years
      Oberlin itself helped to fuel the destruction of my idealistic mindset and lead me down the
path of the kwyjibo. My freshman year brought a number of significant changes to the
institution that, were I a more religious man, I might claim started Oberlin down the road
straight to hell. Being more philosophical and less spiritual, I will merely declare that the events
provided me with my first taste of what would become a steady diet of disillusionment.
      The first few incidents made me want to stick my arms out, grab the College by the neck
and shout "Why you little ... !" as I began to squeeze. On the surface they won't seem like much,
but in retrospect I can detect what was clearly the beginning of an alarming trend:

    •Smoking was banned from all buildings on campus
    •The bike derby was canceled
    •The traditional need-blind admissions process was dropped
    •Below the Belt, the spoof humor magazine, breathed its last

     The volume of change wasn't nearly as surprising as the direction. I came to Oberlin
anticipating change. Over the summer, I'd received a sample copy of the Oberlin Review
newspaper, which I read from cover to cover, trying to glean more information about my home-
to-be. Among the articles was one covering Oberlin's president, S. Frederick Starr, who had
called a campus meeting. At the meeting, he produced a mechanical duck call, put it to his lips,
and blew forth his intention to retire (and thus his status as a "lame duck"). He would be leaving
at the end of the next year, my first one in Oberlin. This decision spurred a year-long candidate
search and interview process, to bring in a replacement who would take over at the beginning of
my sophomore year. In typical Oberlin style, the whole experience was fraught with much
discussion, many issues, and passels of politically correct arguments. By the end of the year,
Oberlin settled on Nancy Dye, who has been (in my experience with the student body) quite
     Going into that first year, it was obvious to us that the character of the administration and
the College itself was bound to change. Of course, change itself is continual and should be
expected. Changing is, they say. But it seemed like we should all count on more than our usual
share during our sophomore year, when the new president took office.
     It was strange then that freshman year brought most of the notable changes--a year earlier
than would be expected. Maybe the lame duck president backed off enough to let other
administrators push changes through. Or maybe some years just contain more landmark events
than others. Human history reveals alternating waves of revolution and peace; periods of
enlightenment follow dark ages. It's a cycle of highs and lows, stepping forward and falling
     For Oberlin, freshman year was a step backwards. A spiral downwards.
     The smoking restrictions probably made the most sense. Anti-smoking regulations are
becoming increasingly common across the country. California, a progressive state, has some of
the most stringent rules. What with the health risks of second-hand smoke, the number of people
with allergies, and the number of people with an aversion to the smell, it's all kinds of sensible
to have smoke-free areas. Banning smoking from the 'Sco and the snack bar was only
reasonable. A non-smoking dorm or two (or even just one free-smoking dorm) would also have
made sense. But outlawing smoking in every building on campus seemed to intrude far into the
territory of essential personal freedoms. It might have been different had we all possessed the
option of living off campus, but all freshmen and sophomores, as well as most juniors, were
required by the school to live in the dorms--dorms where they could no longer perform the
regular personal rituals that many of them were addicted to. A well-placed towel in a dorm room
could eliminate most of the odor; this would also address allergies and health concerns. As for
the smell, well it's not as if many of the rooms didn't carry their own distinctive funk for other
reasons: marijuana, dirty laundry, old food, college sex, and the scent of unwashed masses.
      After the ban it took at least a year and a half to establish proper smoking lounges in all of
the dorms. Until then, many of my friends spent sometimes hours a day exposed to the elements.
Oberlin may have good days, but between the winter chill and the spring and fall rains, it most
definitely is not the ideal location to perpetually camp outside. Say what you will about the
stupidity and health risks involved with smoking, once an addiction has developed it becomes a
biological necessity, not easily put aside. Standing outside in inclement weather was the only
option for a smoker, and that's what they all did. Because my friends were out there, many days
found me out there as well, perched under some scanty overhang and dreading the next plop of
rain down the back of my collar. I'm generally skeptical of the belief that weather has a direct
influence on my state of health--rain showers do not automatically convey pneumonia, no matter
what my grandmother says--but considering the overall level of stress, lack of sleep, and the
miasma of illnesses that swarm around every college campus, our additional exposure to the
elements could only have been detrimental. But in the end, apparently the College's fears about
being sued over health complaints related to cigarette smoke outweighed their concern about
smokers' own health and freedom.
      The dissolution of Below the Belt followed a path more winding and insidious. The
magazine provided cynical, sarcastic, spoof-like attempts at humor, along the lines of The
Onion. I say "attempts" because BTB rarely succeeded at actually being funny. It was mostly an
excuse to insult administrators and students who made it into the public eye, usually through
student government, coverage in The Review, or a letter to the editor in said periodical. In
general, the magazine was juvenile, stupid, and odious. But somehow BTB usually managed to
work in a page or two of decent material along with all the other schlock, so I'd often look over
each issue when it came out. When it disappeared, I didn't miss it. But the manner of its going
left a bad taste in my mouth, because I've always been taught that even total trash still has the
right to exist, especially trash that's part of the Oberlin tradition.
      I don't think the magazine was ever formally disbanded. A few complaints and a series of J-
board and legal trials just convinced the ringleaders of the magazine not to put out any more
issues. I'm sure it's more complicated than that, but to an outsider that's how it looked. It seemed
to be just one article that doomed them. It was a parody of a letter which a student of Asian
ancestry had written to The Review regarding racial or cultural issues. The parody, by mocking
the letter, was construed by a few students as having a racist bias. I suppose it certainly was a
possible conclusion, but honestly it shouldn't have been a likely one. For one thing, nobody
should make it past the third grade without learning that you can't take humor/spoof magazines
seriously--their whole point is that they aren't meant to be serious. But even then, considering
the volume of insipid nastiness in the magazine, this specific piece was pretty mild. Not to
mention that both the original letter and its parody weren't particularly coherent in their
messages. Sure, anything with racist overtones started a brawl at Oberlin faster than breaking a
bottle over a bartender's head in a western saloon, and yes, "hate speech" is a potentially
dangerous and troublesome issue. But damn it, people, there's so much more to be gained from
learning how to address an issue than one can ever get from forcing someone with unpopular
beliefs to shut up. If we're going to take the freedom of speech seriously then we can't spend too
much time figuring out how to silence the messages we don't want to hear, because eventually it
will be we who are being silenced. What goes around comes around.
      And in this particular case, it should have been obvious that no racist intentions were
present. It really should have been, but someone couldn't take a joke. The people who made the
joke faced rampant criticism, legal action, and one case of a terrorist counter-attack where a
trash can was set on fire in front of an editor's dorm room. After that, there just weren't any more
issues of Below the Belt. While some celebrated this as a sign of justice in action, the only
justice I saw was the old-style Klan type, done in reverse. I grew up hearing stories about how
racist KKK members would plant a burning cross in a yard to drive out supposedly
"troublesome" minorities. No doubt they considered themselves upstanding citizens performing
a community service (misguided though that may be). But at Oberlin we had misguided
"upstanding" minorities burning trash in the halls to drive out supposedly troublesome racists.
It's an ironic twist, but honestly it's not much of an improvement. And in the end, after all of the
complaints and trials, BTB was no more. That's a hefty price to pay for speech that's supposedly
      That same year brought the death-knell for need-blind admissions. Oberlin needed money.
The endowment was shrinking. We were spending our future. In order to ensure a financially
viable college, Oberlin decided to make financial status a criterion in the admission process.
Gone were the days when poor and rich students were equally appealing. I exaggerate, of course.
The actual arguments made sense: By giving slightly more favor to students whose parents
could pay the full $25,000 in fees for a year at the College, Oberlin would not only avoid its
looming financial troubles, the College would also be able to offer more money to students who
really needed it. That would have meant more money for someone like me, who was already
getting about $10,000 from Oberlin each year and would still end up with more than $20,000 in
student loans (to be paid off with another seven thousand in interest) by the end of my stay.
Oberlin could even start to offer academic scholarships to attract the exceptionally bright and
talented, who might otherwise have gone elsewhere due to financial considerations. Opponents
of these measures fought hard for the reputation of the College, claiming the removal of need-
blind admissions would dumb down the student body in exchange for the infusion of cash. Even
those of us straddling the line could feel in our guts that something of our integrity was at stake
with the change. Oberlin was supposed to be a gathering place for those who knew money was
not the answer, that it had nothing to do with what brought us satisfaction, completion,
happiness, and success. By frankly admitting that money factored in on par with the applicants'
intelligence, character, and accomplishments, Oberlin was letting us all down, and cheapening
itself in the process. Were we an institution of higher learning, or were we a prostitution ring
that dealt in commencements instead of consummation? That's a grim take on the issue, but the
College's answer, apparently, was to choose in favor of more money.
      The end of the Bike Derby brought the fourth and final shattering blow to the fragile image
of the Oberlin I had chosen to attend. The Derby was a twice-annual festival of destruction
wrought upon the bicycles of Oberlin College by a handful of crazed and very often chemically
addled students. Held biannually in the spring and fall, it had been a tradition for years. I'm not
really sure what the point was. I'm not even sure how they decided who won, if anyone won.
Basically, a number of students drove their bikes around in a circle in Harkness bowl and
smashed each other and their equipment until someone set fire to the debris. The whole event
was effectively a cheap backyard demolition derby, and I hated the concept from the moment I
first heard about it. There were a few problems with the whole idea, in particular the open
flames and the fact that many of the bicycles used in the Derby were stolen from other students.
But to my knowledge, nobody was ever really hurt during a derby. The only actual complaints
about the event came from students whose bikes had been unwilling participants in the event
(and perhaps from other students who were concerned about the environmental effects of
burning rubber).
       Despite the relative harmlessness of the event, a ruling came down from the
administration: the Bike Derby would no longer be tolerated. The College's legal counsel had
advised them that the Derby was rife with opportunities for a conniving and money-grubbing
student to make his life's fortune through a lawsuit. The only option was an outright ban; no
waivers of responsibility, no amount of supervision or regulation would be acceptable enough to
make the Derby safe for Oberlin's coffers. Several students attempted one anyway and were sent
to J-board. A few were let off, and a few were given community service as punishment. After
these events, from the April 1 edition of The Oberlin Review, "[Students] said they believe the
future of the Derby will not be threatened ..." and administrator Patrick Penn declared that he
was leaving it up to students to negotiate safe options. What was left unspoken in the Review
were the words, "April fools!" Because after that day, the Derby was dead and gone. Whether
students tried to negotiate safe options I don't know. The next fall, we just didn't have one. For
the going rate of five hours of community service, someone should have tried to get the Derby
moving again. Of course, being opposed to the spirit of the thing, I didn't step up to the plate.
And even if I had been so inclined, a younger and less-rebellious Martin would have shied away
from the challenge. I guess everybody else did, too. But now I find myself saddened that it is no
more--perhaps not so much because I miss the event as because I hate to see authority needlessly
stand in the way of freedom. My class is the last to have experienced the phenomenon. Now that
we've graduated, it's too late to do anything but remember wistfully as we, too, go the way of the
      As I mentioned, on the surface these four changes don't seem all that significant in terms of
what we students received from Oberlin. But upon deeper reflection, these items were
symptoms of a fundamental and ground-shaking transformation of what Oberlin was meant to
       Traditionally, Oberlin has a reputation for bleeding-edge liberalism. To sum it up in one
sentence: It is the school of liberty in the land of liberty.
      Oberlin was the first college to admit women, and one of the first to admit blacks. It was
one of the last stops on the historic Underground Railroad that led escaped slaves to freedom in
Canada. In more modern days, it was among the innovative schools that first allowed co-ed
dormitories, earning it a cover story in Life magazine. Today the College is known as a haven
for alternative lifestyles, being heralded by Newsweek as "the gay and lesbian Mecca of the
Midwest." And during my last year legislation was passed that allowed not only co-ed dorms but
co-ed rooms; men and women could choose to live together in a campus dorm room, if they so
desired. Freedom means a lot to Obies.
     And that's why I was so disturbed by the four "deadly sins" of Oberlin. Valuing money over
integrity should have been unacceptable, but eradicating need-blind admissions had done just
that. The very essence of the school was devoted to personal freedom for all people, everywhere,
and yet banning smoking and ending the bike derby cut down on our ability to pursue happiness.
Finally, the freedom of speech and expression--perhaps the most fundamental liberty of all,
guaranteed by the First Amendment--should have been as sacred to Obies as human life itself.
But the events surrounding the collapse of Below the Belt indicated my school had turned its
back on even that most precious right.
     And that is the reason I felt Oberlin was hades-bound.
     I chose Oberlin because I believed it to be of the top-ten places on the entire planet that was
devoted to supporting such freedoms. But I was let down. Not just by members of the student
body, but by the entire institution. The realization hardened my heart. If even Oberlin had fallen,
then all was lost.
     From that point, choosing to become a kwyjibo wasn't all that difficult.

      In my first week at Oberlin College, I had the honor of meeting my advisor, the
knowledgeable and prolific H. Royden James. Prolific in the literary sense; I have no idea of the
amplitude of the good professor's progeny, as my economics-major friends might say if Doctor
James' family life were to become a problem set. Author of half a dozen novels, two of them
award winning and all six "acclaimed masterpieces of modern literature" (litter-ature, might
some skeptics ask?) Master James was a personage of no small stature. Literally as well as
literately. He stood at least a couple of inches taller than I and carried enough bulk on his frame
to make a happy Thanksgiving for a large family of South American cannibals. (Ignoring, for
the moment, the fact that said cannibals wouldn't be aware of or wish to celebrate said holiday.
It is a fine thing that metaphor does not need to coincide with reality.)
      I looked forward to the initial meeting with anxiety and trepidation, mixed. This would be
my first official conversation with any professor at Oberlin. When I'd applied, it had been late in
the season--too late to arrange for an interview. But my class rank and my high test scores gave
me enough credit to get in. According to the books, an interview would have been preferred, but
I have a finely-honed intuition that allows me to get by with the bare minimum of requirements.
I've always been a good test taker, which helped me both in high school and with the SATs. An
interview might have been helpful to convince them that I was a well-rounded, politically-
minded individual, but it just wasn't necessary and so I let it slide. I'll admit there were a few
other schools I was looking at, but none of them held my interest the way Oberlin did. It crossed
my mind that I should have applied anyway, but once their November and December application
dates trickled by, I just focused on Oberlin as my favorite. As it was, I put my application in the
mail within a hour of midnight on February 15th, but that was fifty-nine minutes earlier than
necessary. At the time I considered it a prime example of my ability to do precisely "just
enough," a skill that has since caused more grief than I would have thought possible.
      As I'd skipped the optional interview, this was going to be my first official contact with the
Oberlin faculty. In a way, it would be the first of many tests to find out if the College and I were
truly compatible. Would I be able to talk to a professor? Did I properly understand their general
liberal ideology, or would they be far more extreme than I was prepared to accept? Or would I
be too extreme? Would my Northern Florida conservative roots show through and reveal me as
someone who means well but has been permanently and hopelessly put awry by his upbringing?
I've heard otherwise intelligent and apparently unbiased individuals suddenly claim they've been
"Jewed" out of a good deal. The thought haunted me that I might carry some intrinsically racist
vocabulary unwittingly around inside me that could suddenly pop out and damn me to the ranks
of the unworthy.
      Take the word "gypped" for example. I've been using it all my life to mean that I got a bad
deal, or that I didn't get anywhere near my money's worth. "Eight dollars to see that awful
movie? What a gyp!" It dawned on me one day that gyp, of course, refers to gypsies and their
infamous abilities to cheat people. Of course it's derogatory. There just aren't any gypsies around
to complain and set us straight. Even at Oberlin, nobody else had ever caught that one, so I
assumed there were dozens of similar phrases over which I could stumble and reveal my
      This was by no means an unreasonable fear. Within days of my arrival I learned that the
politically correct atmosphere was not only sensitive to intentionally derogatory words, but in
some cases moderately innocuous terms had become "dirty."
      At Oberlin, the two words most contorted by political correctness are "woman" and
"freshman." I wasn't allowed to be a freshman. I was a first-year. And a small but vocal group of
feminine individuals on the campus insisted they were not women: They were womyn or
wymyn. Heaven forbid that a person of the female persuasion be referred to by a word that
contains the letters m, a, and n in succession. I've heard a number of argumynts, most of which
didn't make sense. As best I could tell, the stance was that a word which contained the letters
"man" meant the larger word was somehow less than or subservient to the root: man. Or perhaps
the implication was that the three letters somehow projected maleness onto females, impinging
upon the quality of their lives. Is there any real merit there? I just can't see it. I've been called
"miss" now and then--after I grew out my hair sophomore year--even though I'm 6'3" and had a
scraggly beard most of the time. I know why it happened. The person speaking to me only
noticed my long hair and assumed I must be female, because that's his bias. Did I complain? No.
Did I feel demeaned by having my gender confused? No. Do I think we need a Hairstyle
Recognition and Sensitivity movement? No. If it happened on a daily basis, would I cut all my
hair off or start yelling at people? No, and no. Hell, people have been calling me by the wrong
name for four years now and it hasn't hurt anything yet.
      Sometimes I think people put just a little too much stock in the power of random
combinations of letters.
      Consider the congressman who was censured for referring to a man of African descent as
"niggardly." Niggardly means stingy, coming to us from Scandinavia some 600 years ago.
Through total coincidence, it happens to sound a bit like the N-word, which was adopted
roughly 300 years ago from the Spanish word for black. Sure, the N-word is likely the most
racially incendiary word in the language. Even I--the kwyjibo who can utter almost anything
with impunity--I still refuse to let the word fall from my lips or spill from my fingers, even in a
linguistic discussion. But I've got no problems with niggardly; it may not be the most common
of words, but come on, people. Stinginess is so prevalent a complaint that I've heard every word
for it dozens of times: parsimonious, closefisted, tightfisted, tightwad, greedy, covetous, penny-
pinching, cheap, selfish, niggardly. People get scammed, ripped-off, cheated, robbed, swindled,
fleeced, gypped, and "Jewed" on a daily basis. If you're gonna get upset about any of them, pick
the last two, which at least have some cultural and linguistic derogatory connotations. With
them at least the insult might actually be intended.
     Thus I say to those who think woman should be re-spelled because it contains the word
"man" that they can go take a hike. Are men and women so different that the words should no
longer have a linguistic root in common? And if "man" is such a criminal string of letters, then
I've got a list of words that those ultra-feminist slackers haven't bothered to put on death row
yet. By their logic, we'll have to ban: mango, mangrove, mandrill, managers, mana, manna,
manatees, manchurian candidates, mandarin oranges, the hindu mandala, mandibles, manes,
manual labor (yay!), manganese, mange, mangonels, Manhattan (the city), manhattans (the
drink), maniacs, manicotti, manicures (a traditionally female interest), manifestos, manila
envelopes, manometers, mansions, manors, manta rays, preying mantises, and probably
hundreds more words. Like the freshman turned "first-year" (or, in my preference, freshling),
like the mailman turned "mail carrier" or the weatherman turned "weather-person," we're going
to have to say goodbye to all the old words and replace the evil "man" with the more gender-
neutral "person." The vocabulary words for the week are: person-tle (formerly mantle), person-
ual (manual), person-ure (manure), person-x (Manx), and person-y (many).
     Oh, wait. Scratch all that. Person contains "son," which implies we're all boys; and it's
horribly insensitive to orphans. Maybe we can invent a new word from letters nobody's ever
seen before, just so we can have our gender-neutral fresh start.
     You might as soon claim that someone who asks "when?" is a chicken because he's also
said "hen," or that handing someone a piece of wire also provides them with a handful of ire. I'm
always amazed that the same people who take away an O from good to get God and thus
"prove" God is good never bother to take away an L from gold and conclude that God is made
of gold. Never mind that in another language the analysis breaks down entirely. Dios (Spanish)
minus an O gives us dis--nothing in Spanish and slang for "an insult" in English. English is not
God's language any more than the others, and anyone who claims some man-made invention
reveals God's message to us is going to find a staunch opponent in me. When you have to make
up everything in the universe from 26 basic elements, you're bound to have repetitions and
similarities. They may or may not be related. Most of those that are do so because it makes
sense! There is an obvious connection between male and female, with good reason, and if
anyone objects to the fact that female is forced into the inferior role because it's longer, then
she's got problems. Is having to write "fe" first somehow diminishing? If the language has such
a strong effect on our reality, then by that logic, widowers should be culturally inferior to
widows--damned by those extra two letters. If anything, woman having more letters than man
makes sense. Biologically speaking, the females are the ones who get the extra gene segment on
the final chromosome, the X instead of a Y. Protestors can argue with God about biology if they
want, but She's not gonna like it.
     The one argument that made sense to me for a while was the observation that hypothetical
characters tend to be male (from the introduction to Godel, Escher, Bach). Examples in math
and philosophy and science, more often than not, use male characters. Is our bias so strong that
we just instinctively assume the person firing the gun, winning the lottery, or performing the
surgery is male? Do we somehow spread the message that women can't--or don't--do those
things? It seemed at least somewhat plausible, and for a while I wondered whether we might be
better off not using the generic "he" when referring to unknown individuals. But using "he or
she" gets awkward in extensive examples, and while "they" remains happily unisex they also
gets confusing and they drives grammatical sticklers to fits. Maybe consistently using "she" for a
while wouldn't hurt things.
      But then I took the course Problems in Modern Philosophy, where this principle was
extensively put to use throughout our reams of recent and (sometimes) politically correct
readings. The class dealt mostly with the popular and heavily debated socio-political issues of
our day: abortion, capital punishment, drug use, pornography, warfare, affirmative action,
assisted suicide, and so on. In a lemminglike surge of anti-sexism, all of the authors invariably
used women in their examples whenever possible. So Woman A has a terminal disease, and
Woman B is clinically depressed, and Woman C is on death row; D is a prostitute, E-K use
drugs heavily, L has been raped and wants to get an abortion, M is president and starts a global
nuclear war, N-Q are blind, undereducated, poor, and mentally retarded (respectively) and they
all need jobs, while Woman R suffers from all of the above. The problem being, of course, that
philosophers can be bunch of gloomy bastards. That makes sense, though. What moral
dilemmas are there in a happy, smoothly-running life? It's not worth writing about. But by trying
to help, the philosophers put their women through horrible hypothetical experiences. It
convinced me the whole idea was silly. This wasn't helping women. It wasn't showing anyone
what women were capable of; it just made things worse.
      What did that leave? We could go through our texts changing every "bad" hypothetical
back to the male and leave women with all the "good" ones. A horrible idea. I can already see a
riot starting over which scenarios are bad and which are good. Just consider a black individual
applying at a place that supports affirmative action. Should the individual be male because he
has a five-hundred-year history of disadvantages and prejudice to try to overcome? Or should
the applicant be female, because there's nothing "bad" about being black--she should be proud!
And if the male gets the job, then that's something "good," so does he now need a sex change?
It's way too artificial, too deliberate and methodical. The truth is, it's impossible to erase a
distinction by focusing on that distinction. Any system which tries to remove a bias by
emphasizing the bias is inherently flawed. The only real solution is to allow the distinction to
cease to exist.
      However, our language doesn't work very well without pronouns, so for the time being it
seems to make the most sense to stick with the generic "he." Alternatively, we could invent
some unisex term to replace both. If somebody gives me a good single word that means "he or
she" that everyone understands, I'll use it. Until then, "he" is what I'm going to use for all my
hypotheticals, unless the person in question is necessarily female.

     With the preliminaries of all this running through my head in a jumble, it's no wonder I was
nervous about meeting my advisor. I was also edgy because I was about to talk for the first time
with the person who would have to approve my intended schedule and approximate plans for
myself and my time at Oberlin. But I had no real plan then, no sure path to follow. Philosophy
interested me, I knew, but so did twenty other subjects. My only plan was to test the waters for a
few semesters, to see which subjects were most to my liking. I had no idea where I would end
up, nor what I intended to make of the rest of my life. Of course I know now I possessed far
more solid plans than a significant portion of Obies, but at the time it seemed very reasonable
that my lack of direction could be scorned by such a mighty personage as my advisor, especially
since he was famous.
     I had seen books bearing the name H. Royden James in the book stores, had heard the name
brought up in an occasional literary discussion. We even read one of his stories in a high school
modern literature class: The Poltergeist's Haunt by H. Royden James.
      It wasn't until I received my advisor assignment late in the summer of 1993 that it clicked
into place James was an English professor at Oberlin, my academic destination. That I might run
into him there hadn't even occurred to me; that I might have him as my advisor was almost
shocking. But such was the case. How did I end up with an English professor as an advisor?
Simple. When asked on my application if I had a preference, I answered in the negative because
a) I truly had no preference, b) whoever they assigned to me might lead me down some
previously unexplored and unexpected path, and c) unsure as I was at the time, it seemed
prudent to withhold any opinion so as to avoid taking an advisor in a subject more strongly
desired by another student. It occurs to me now, years too late, that asking for an advisor in the
highly competitive creative writing major might have helped me get into that exclusive program.
But I didn't know then how difficult it was to be admitted into the extremely popular
introductory course. (A Roman statesman once said, "It is trying times we live in. Children don't
listen to their parents, and everyone is writing a book." Those words may be two millennia old,
but they sum up Oberlin fairly well.) It also wasn't clear to me then that writing, unlike many
other subjects, would not be a passing interest. So, true to character, I took the hands-off
approach, doing the least that seemed necessary at the time.
      Some people, they'll grab a spot in line and defend it viciously until one day they realize
they'd rather be in another line and then they scurry over to that one and repeat the process. Me,
I prefer to hold back and scope out the situation first, make up my mind properly, and then
commit wholeheartedly. It's less wear and tear on me, causes less problems with the people
around me, and just seems more sensible. In this land of freedom, espousing the belief that we
should go out of our way to make less trouble for other people can draw some strange looks. For
some reason, in this country it's apparently unthinkable to do something you don't have to if it's
only going to benefit someone else. I've been accused of being a socialist for my stated views on
waiting in lines, driving in traffic, and navigating sidewalks. Maybe I am. But maybe, if you
look close enough, deep in the heart of the matter you may find that in many cases what is best
for the group is a hell of a lot better for the individual than anything we're getting now.
      Take traffic problems, for example. Look at a stretch of interstate out in the countryside,
where a two-lane highway narrows down to one lane over a bridge because they're doing
construction. Traffic's not very dense. They post warning signs that the lane is going to end for
at least five miles before the area of construction. But does everyone calmly and smoothly
merge into the left lane? Do we all recognize the construction zone speed-limit change and slow
to a uniform and reasonable 45 miles per hour? Do we cooperate, as we should, so that everyone
slips by the bridge in a matter of seconds, never having to tap their brakes even for a moment?
No. Hardly. We could, but we don't. Invariably, the whole deal is backed up for a mile or two,
stop-and-go traffic the entire way. It takes somewhere between ten and thirty minutes to pass the
construction, instead of one or two. Nobody even considers merging until the last second,
jockeying for that extra car length before giving in to the inevitable. If anyone actually has
enough presence of mind to merge ahead of time, cars pour into the vacancy, thrilled that they're
saving themselves two or three seconds. It doesn't occur to anybody that those few seconds are
damning traffic behind them to another few minutes. It doesn't occur to them that the entire
logjam was caused by people ahead of them doing the exact same thing they're doing right now!
      The hypocrites curse all the other drivers out there for being idiots and don't even realize
they're just as much to blame.
     That's what I mean. The power of one person's individual greed gaining them some
minuscule benefit has the potential to exponentially escalate trouble for everyone else. But we
all want that minuscule benefit and by God we're going to get it, and damn everybody else.
     Personally, I prefer a different philosophy: An ounce of prevention saves a ton of trouble
(sic). And that applies to everybody.

      I woke up on my second day at Oberlin College when Ixthyaki's alarm went off at 7:23 in
the morning. It was a pleasant alarm. Not too loud, not too harsh. Just a series of mellow beeps
that gradually increased in quantity and volume, each burst about three seconds apart. Beep.
Bee-deep. Bee-deep-beep. Beep-bee-dee-beep. It was clearly designed to be pleasant,
unobtrusive, but still effective. Totally Ish, to the core. I don't know what happens after the
fourth set. My roommate always cut the alarm off immediately after that tenth beep. He never
missed it, never slept through it, never once left it on by accident while he went to the bathroom,
never hit the snooze button (if it even had one). He awoke at the same time every day of his
Oberlin career, weekends and holidays included. Or at least I assume he did. Though I regularly
slept through it, every time I was awake to hear the alarm (usually after an all-nighter), it went
off with the precision to make an atomic clock green with envy.
      By contrast, my alarm clock was a degenerate mongrel. Purchased at Ben Franklin for $5, it
cost several dollars more than it was worth. All cheap plastic and flimsy metal, the machine's
harsh buzzing alarm indoctrinated each morning with a little taste of pure evil. The face was
back-lit just enough to make one believe it should be possible to tell time in the dark, but not
quite bright enough for one to be sure without getting up and turning on the light to check. The
plastic faceplate fell off a few weeks after I got it, which would have been okay, except that in
my morning bleariness I regularly plunged my thumb into its hands, bending them in the most
Dalíesque fashion or sometimes knocking them completely off the dial. So I taped the faceplate
back on, but then if the alarm was set, every few hours the internal mechanism would vibrate in
such a way that the faceplate began to hum and buzz. Sometimes the buzzing would quit on its
own. Other times it would continue nonstop until I switched the alarm to the off position for a
while. Naturally, I frequently forgot to turn it back on before going to sleep.
      Even when I did set it properly, mornings were no picnic. I often let the alarm run for
several minutes before getting up to turn it off. I slept through it occasionally. I'd come back
from showers to find out I'd hit snooze instead of turning it off, angry neighbors glaring from
their doors as I approached. Plenty of other times I'd do the reverse: turning it off instead of
hitting snooze. I'd awaken hours later, well-rested but panicky. In my four years at Oberlin,
never once did it awaken me that I didn't hit the snooze button at least twice, and never did I set
it earlier than 8:50. Despite this discrepancy between Ish and me, our combined morning rituals
worked out surprisingly well. I quickly learned to sleep through Ixthyaki's early preparations and
he was always gone before my alarm went off.
      On this day, though, his alarm did pierce my slumber, bringing me back from the land of
Nod. My first thought was that it had to be way too early to get up, which was entirely true. My
second thought was, "It's my first morning at Oberlin!" This was enough to get me moving. A
little, at least.
      As he was to do every morning, Ish rose and stretched enthusiastically and thoroughly for a
couple of minutes. I just blinked groggily at him from my bed while he did this. Then he slipped
on a kimono and left the room, presumably to visit the restroom. I rolled onto my stomach,
squirmed a little, contemplated moving, closed my eyes to better contemplate, and woke up
again when Ish returned to the room a couple of minutes later. Though I couldn't see, sounds
told me that he hung up his kimono and slipped back into bed.
      Maybe there's hope for the guy after all, I thought. But even if he was going back to sleep, it
occurred to me I might as well get up. It was my first complete day at Oberlin. There were many
of them ahead of me, but what I did with this first one could very well set a precedent for all the
rest. I was at the moment of greatest potential, standing at the head of an infinite number of
paths. Anything could happen to me here. I could meet anyone, learn anything, have any sort of
experience. If nothing else I'd have one day less tomorrow than I did now. But by then I could
have already begun to develop patterns that would determine the rest of my life here. The people
I met that day might be my friends for years, for life. Love, too, could be just around the corner.
      Love. That made me think of Ginevra, in the room next to me. Was she still sleeping there?
Had she already gotten up? Might she be at breakfast? My heart sped up in anticipation that I
might meet her there. We'd stayed out late the night before, talking with a few other hangers-out
after the movie, getting to know each other. Eventually Ginevra and I wandered out into Tappan
Square and found a seat on the arch, where we chatted happily for hours. Ginevra explained that
we were seated on one of the most controversial structures in Oberlin. "There's a plaque on it
dedicated to missionaries who died during the Boxer Rebellion. But the rebellion was an
attempt for China to overthrow imperialist control, you know, so a bunch of Obies see the
memorial as insensitive to the Chinese who died fighting for freedom. During commencement
you're supposed to walk through the arch as part of a procession, but protesters walk around it."
      What would I do when the time came? With four years to figure it out, there should be
plenty of time to worry myself grey and change my mind, oh, a good half dozen times. Even as
the apprehensive feeling unfolded within me, Ginevra gave a name to that sense of anxiety and
insecurity: angst. The word was a new one to me then, though now I recognize it as easily as I
can discern "happy" from a smiley face sticker. The vocabulary lesson left me both excited and a
bit concerned. On the positive side, this was the first new concept I'd learned at Oberlin, just
hours after my arrival. It was thrilling that my education had already begun. On the other hand,
it did not necessarily bode well that my first new concept had such strong negative connotations.
Yet another source of worry to fuel the angst that I'd only just learned to identify.
      And then there had been another dark note, right at the end of the night. I'd gotten back to
my room sometime after one. Ish was already asleep, so I crept in as silently as I could, stubbing
my toe on the corner of my bed in the process. Even after I settled down, sleep did not come
easily. Some of it may have been the new environment, but I'm not normally bothered by such
things when I travel. And the excitement of the day should have been more than overmatched by
all the miles I'd had to drive to get there. More than anything else, I think it was the noises that
got to me. I was used to a quiet house in a quiet suburb, where I was almost always the last one
to go to bed. But in college it doesn't matter when you go to bed; there's always someone still up
and moving about. On that first night I was kept awake by the sounds of my neighbors going in
and out of the bathroom, or their bedroom, and even by the sound of people entering and leaving
the building several stories below.
      It wasn't just the sounds, though--I could learn to ignore them easily enough. The thumps
and thuds and toilets flushing weren't too bad. What really got me were the voices. The activity
intrigued me. Life was still going on out there.
     By far the worst were the voices under the window. I could hear them as people walked by,
on their way from some mysterious and interesting locale to some new and equally intriguing
opportunity. The voices under the window informed me that exciting things were happening.
Indoor voices could be someone on their way to bed, but voices from outside meant that people
were still alert and active and most likely having fun. Conversations, meals, games ... perhaps
even romance. Or, more importantly, the sounds could easily be made by an attractive woman in
search of romance.
     Lying awake in a strange and darkened room, at this completely unknown school, in this
strange new town, more than a thousand miles away from home and family and friends, with a
man I'd talked to for just a few minutes sleeping only a few feet away from me, I realized that I
was lonely. The voices under the window made me lonelier still. From four floors up I couldn't
make out any actual words, but my imagination assumed every muffled sentence must be
something priceless. The voices under the window seemed to be taunting me, telling me how
great it was to be down where they were, and how pathetic I was for being alone up in my room:
"You're alone. We're not. The best of your day is over. Ours is happening right now. Sucker." I
could feel the truth of their statement, that I was missing out on the very best life had to offer.
Listening to those voices under the window, it was a long time before I managed to fall asleep.

      So it was with good reason that I was tired the next morning. But the promise of adventure
moved me to uncharacteristic activity, even at such an early hour.
      I sat up and found Ish seated cross-legged on his bed, staring at the miniature rock garden
and its inscrutable pattern. His hands rested on his knees, fingers curled, thumbs completing the
circle. He was obviously meditating. I didn't want to disturb him, so I sat still for a few
moments, waiting for some sign of his awareness.
      A few minutes passed. Shit. I lay back down to wait him out, staring at the clock and
watching time tick by. Ten minutes, fifteen, twenty. How long was he going to sit there? My
bladder, which had been whispering to me since the beginning, began to speak now in a firmer
tone. I kept waiting. Another five minutes passed. I was just about to give up when Ixthyaki's
clock kicked over to 8:00 with a faintly audible tick.
      He lifted his arms, unloosened his legs, and rotated so that his calves hung over the side of
his bed. I sat up.
      "Good morning," he said.
      "Morning," I replied as I hopped out of the bed and limped down the hall as fast as my
swollen bladder would allow. A urinal never smelled so sweet.
      When I returned, Ixthyaki was apologetic. "Please don't worry about me if I'm meditating.
Short of slamming a door or speaking my name, I probably won't notice you."
      "Okay," I said. "Do you always get up this early?"
      "Every day."
      "Yeowch. I've been getting up late all summer, so this is pretty early for me. But today's my
first day at Oberlin, so I wanted to get a good start."
      "Wonderful. I'm just about to take a shower, but after that I had planned to go have
breakfast. Would you care to join me?"
      I agreed, and we went about our morning preparations. Ixthyaki showered, shaved, dressed
impeccably in khaki shorts and a collared shirt, brushed his teeth, flossed, used a q-tip (but, I'm
sure, resisted all temptation to improperly delve too deeply into the inner ear), gargled with
mouthwash, made his bed, neatly folded his clothes from the day before, placed them in his
laundry basket, and adorned himself with the following items of jewelry: a watch, a necklace
with a Japanese character representing health and longevity, and his father's Harvard class ring. I
learned this routine well in the first few weeks at Oberlin, when I still had the enthusiasm to get
up that early in the morning. His attire, of course, changed appropriately with the weather, but
I'm sure the rest of the process altered not a whit during his entire stay at Oberlin. That first
morning, I showered as well, combed my hair, and then spent the next fifteen minutes dozing on
my bed until Ish finished his preparations and woke me.
      That first shower was a complicated affair. What to bring, what not to bring, how much
clothing to wear, how to keep everything dry that needed to be--there should have been a
manual or a class during orientation. I knew I needed to bring the shampoo and soap, of course.
And a towel, certainly. But the rest was guesswork. Clothes were the hardest to manage: I wore
a shirt, shorts, and boxers to the shower; brought under my arm a clean set of the above items to
put on after the ordeal; and realized once I was there that I was also wearing shoes and socks, in
addition to carrying the flip-flops I wasn't sure if I would need. As soon as I removed my shoes,
my (clean) socks did their best sponge impression with the water on the floor. I hung up my
clean clothes on the provided hook, shed my shirt and shorts casually. Then came my first
difficult decision: what to do about my underwear? Should I doff them outside the stall and
leave myself exposed, or was it better to hop into the stall, pull the curtain, and then somehow
contrive to get the underwear back out of the shower? It seemed important to do it right.
Modesty overrode the need to be casual, and I settled for getting into the shower and hanging
my boxers on the curtain rod.
      Then I turned around and took my first close look at the shower knob, which consisted of a
single dial. Clockwise for heat, it said, and counterclockwise for cold. What about pressure?
Apparently the ability to regulate water pressure is something Oberlin considers an abstract
luxury. Maybe pressure-regulating handles cost too much. Perhaps they thought we needed a
little rough treatment to settle us down. I don't understand their rationale, but it was clear my
choices were "off" or "sandblaster." In the 3x4 stall there wasn't nearly enough room to avoid
the spray as I frantically tried to find the happy medium between icy needles and burning darts.
Eventually the temperature settled, and I concentrated on learning to appreciate the brutal
massage. I was ready to wash my hair, but where was my shampoo? Resting near my shoes,
against the back wall outside the shower. I popped my head out, made sure the coast was clear.
Reassured, I stepped boldly out of the shower with the air of one accustomed to public nudity.
Then a toilet flushed and I scampered back into the stall like a spooked squirrel. Just in time for
the water temperature to kick up another twenty degrees. I yelped and threw myself backwards
again, holding myself against the curtain and dancing to avoid scalding my feet too badly.
      The rest of the shower progressed without too much difficulty. On this first day I was
cautious enough to make sure I turned the water off in the proper direction. A couple of weeks
later, once I'd gotten used to the process, I carelessly knocked the handle to the left once by
mistake. For a fraction of a second I stared in confusion as the water supply refused to cut out.
Realization, fear, and adrenaline all kicked in at exactly the same moment the hot water reached
the mouth of the nozzle. I slammed the knob back to the right and leapt backwards at the same
time, but not before I'd received a full frontal blast of boiling water. I give myself macho points
for the fact that I didn't scream. I did, however, turn bright pink from neckline to kneecaps.
That's the sort of mistake you never make a second time, when-
      When I got out of that first shower I found that I'd left my towel on the floor just outside the
stall, where it had served diligently as a mop for all of the excess spray from my cleansing ritual.
I sheepishly toweled myself less wet, put on my clean clothes, then decided that they were going
to be unpleasantly soggy and so switched to my dirty clothes. They, of course, were nearly as
wet as my towel from being on the floor and also smelled strongly of the sweat and heat of the
day before. I switched back to the wet-but-clean clothes, went back to my room (carrying shoes
and water-laden socks), and changed into a third set of clothing while Ixthyaki was shaving in
the bathroom.
      It was about five that evening before I remembered I'd left my shampoo and soap in the
shower stall.
      I figure because I did at least manage to get clean, my first showering experience could be
called a qualified success.

      Breakfast in Stevenson was overwhelming. In recent years, my morning meal had been a
quiet, personal affair, involving at most myself, a glass of juice, and a bowl of cereal. But the
dining hall swarmed with students. And the variety of food was amazing. Hot dishes of eggs,
bacon, pancakes, waffles, grits, biscuits, and gravy assaulted my senses. Cold goods like cereal,
fruit, all sorts of beverages, bagels, and toast stood ready. The cornucopia clamored to be
      It took nearly twenty minutes of dodging and weaving to scout the place out, locate a tray,
and fill it with my choice of breakfast foods. Bread was in one spot, butter in another, beverages
and silverware were tucked away in rooms between the kitchen area and the three separate
dining "pods," as they were called. Each pod possessed a separate first-floor entrance (the dining
area was on the second floor), an individual name (Biggs, Longman, and Griswold), and was
theoretically aligned with one or two of the dorms on north campus. When I'd finally collected
my meal, there was no sign of Ixthyaki or our neighbors Josh and Malcolm who had walked
over to breakfast with us. I poked my head into the northernmost pod, Biggs, which
corresponded to the doorway we'd entered downstairs. The throng of feeding humanity didn't
seem to contain my roommate. I checked Griswold next, also without success. By process of
deduction, they should have been in Longman, but I saw no sign of them there, either.
      An empty table right in front of me beckoned enticingly. I was tired of standing there
looking lost. My Lucky Charms were getting soggy and my tray was growing heavy. I wondered
if I should keep looking for Ish, but I knew that he at least had someone to sit with, so I wasn't
abandoning him, and-
      And so I sat down at the only empty table I'd seen and dug in. Breakfast that day consisted
of cereal, hash browns, grapefruit, juice, soda (at breakfast, this was a novelty not to be passed
up), bacon, and a donut (also quite a treat!). Perhaps my enthusiasm for the variety got the best
of me. A short three weeks later, the thought of eating another of those donuts would fill me
with nausea, mostly due to my "at least one donut with every meal" approach to dining. After
those first weeks, it was another two years before I could stomach the campus donuts again, this
time at a more reasonable--and palatable--pace of no more than one per week.
      A shadow loomed near me. "Is it all right if we sit here?" I looked up to see a tall, skinny
man with pale skin and tightly-cropped red hair. His lopsided grin suggested wry witticisms
lurked just behind his teeth. Beside him stood a shaven-headed man of Asian descent who
looked like he might do something unpredictable if I said no. Then again, he also looked like he
might do something unpredictable if I said yes.
      "Sure," I said. "Pull up a chair."
      The two settled themselves, comparing notes on where'd they'd found the delicacies that
graced their trays. "I'm Leon," the redhead said. "This is my roommate Thanh."
      Leon held out his hand, which I shook. I said, "Nice to meet you. I'm Da-" My introduction
trailed off as a hush fell over the room. The clouds above fell away from the sun and the entire
hall brightened immeasurably. In the distance a soft-voiced choir murmured something
rapturous, maybe Mendelssohn's Romeo and Juliet. Or so it seemed as Ginevra strode through
the archway just feet from where I sat. I waved and called out to her, grinning like an idiot. To
my utter delight she seated herself beside me.
      "Hi Martin! How are you?" For a brief second, I couldn't figure out why she was addressing
me by my last name. But then I remembered and resigned myself to my new identity. Martin it
would be.
      We all made introductions, and Ginevra, being a sophomore and a CRO, answered our
questions about the dining halls, orientation activities, and general Oberlin errata. Beautiful and
informative, what a gal!
      We then exchanged the requisite dorm assignments, intended majors, and cities of origin.
Leon was ecstatic to learn I was from Florida. "I heard there are these poisonous caterpillars that
live in the trees in Miami. They curl themselves up and drop out of trees onto people and kill
them. So I've been thinking they should start wearing Texas ten-gallon hats to keep the
caterpillars out. You know, something big that'll deflect them. Or they could start selling
lightweight ponchos on street corners. Like the people who sell umbrellas in New York when it
rains--only you'd sell ponchos in caterpillar season."
      "I hate to disappoint you, Leon, but I've never heard of anything like that. Tallahassee isn't
very close to Miami, but I think that would make the news. We definitely don't have poisonous
dive-bombing caterpillars where I'm from. Maybe someone was pulling your leg."
      "Oh." He looked crestfallen. Ah, the disappointment of having something fantastic taken
from your universe. Even if the world is a little safer for it, it's a little less magical, too.

     It shames me to admit that I spent a large portion of my time shooting down Leon's ideas.
He was always coming up with the craziest theories, and part of me always wants to play devil's
advocate. I like to believe it's an extension of my logical, philosophical nature, but sometimes I
think I just take a perverse pleasure in disagreeing with someone and watching them get
flustered. It's all part of the game called "conversation." If someone's trying to convince me
something is true, then there's got to be a darn good reason why they think I need convincing,
which usually means there's got to be a counter-argument. I don't even try, really; I just assume
that what I'm being told isn't true and the objections flood out. Sometimes I'm serious about my
arguments, sometimes I'm just pushing my friends to make them sharper, clearer, better. When
they're trying to score points in a discussion and you're rooting for their team, it can be a
beautiful thing. It's like batting practice. Your own guy is doing everything he can to help you
send his pitch over the fence.
     "I've been revising my personal philosophy," Leon said to me across an Uncle John's
mushroom and pepperoni pizza. We sat on the floor of his freshman-year bedroom in North,
enjoying a midnight meal break. It was early March, cold and wet, and by coincidence each of
us had a paper due the next day--I for religious studies and he for a health course on STDs. To
avoid disturbing Ixthyaki in our open double, I'd relocated to Leon's room, borrowing my
roommate's PowerBook laptop to do my work on. Demonstrating the fine art of procrastination,
we determined that a brief pause to refuel our bodies would put us in good stead for the long
night of work that awaited us. So it was at, oh, one we two took a three-hour break for surviving
papers on sex and heaven, ate nine-dollar pizza and then some fruit pies from the vending
machine. The best excuses always contain a grain of the truth, you see. Procrastination is
primarily the art of exaggerating good reasoning until you like the conclusion you've reached.
      Venturing into personal philosophy was a sign that Leon was grasping at straws. Wild
ranting about the state of the world was par for the course; specific serious insights into his
personal life were rare.
      Equally desperate to postpone my assignment, I settled back to gain from my friend's
      "I've been thinking I shouldn't worry as much about interruptions and delays. I'm always in
such a hurry. Running around all the time. If the guy in front of me takes an extra twenty
seconds to put condiments on his hamburger, I get mad at him, right? But then yesterday I'm
waiting in line at the Féve, and it's taking forever. Everybody's writing checks--why they can't
carry cash I'll never understand; it's the same thing but five times as fast. Right, so anyway,
they're all ordering complicated, slow things like milkshakes and sandwiches with special-order
ingredients, and I'm thinking why can't they just hurry up 'cause all I want is an IBC root beer.
It's in a bottle, all they've gotta do is just hand it to me, right? They don't even have to open the
thing. Ten, fifteen seconds, tops. Like they should have an express lane or something.
      "I almost gave up and went to Gibson's instead, but then while I'm waiting, this hottie walks
in and stands right behind me. Eyes like jewelry, hair like a campfire, and a smile like a tazer--I
swear she would've knocked me flat if she'd even brushed against me. I've never seen her before
either; you think you know everybody here, right, and then suddenly you find out you've been
missing the best part."
      "Did you talk to her?"
      "I said hi. She said hi back and gave me a huge smile. But then it was my turn to order.
They take half an hour to help three people and then the second you turn around you've got two
of them at the counter shouting 'Next please!' and looking at you like it's your fault they're so
slow. I swear. Right, so I got my drink. And then the woman was busy ordering, so I sat down
and waited, hoping maybe she'd stay and I could think of some excuse to keep talking to her.
But then she got her coffee to go."
      "That's it?"
      "Not everything. She smiled at me again before she left, too."
      "Nice! That's always the best feeling, isn't it?"
      "Yeah. It's like, even though I may never see her again, at least I was unrepellent enough
that she wanted to smile at me, right? I've been running around thinking about her for the last
day and a half."
      "Cool!" I said. "That happened to me last week. I was going into Stevenson for supper and
as I was heading up the stairs an attractive woman passed me and flashed this huge smile as she
went by. I felt like dancing all through supper."
      "See, you know what I'm talking about. I've been thinking, you see, that the only reason I
even saw this girl was because the line was so slow. If I hadn't had to wait ten minutes first, I
would have been long gone before she got there. It's only because of the delay I managed to
have this fine experience, right? So that's why I'm trying to learn to appreciate hold-ups, because
sometimes they can lead to something even better.
      "Look at it this way," he continued. "I used to worry all the time about what I was missing
when life sidetracks me. But now I see I'm getting just as much in exchange. The seven minutes,
say, that I thought I would have get replaced by a different seven minutes instead."
      It seemed like there was more he was trying to get at but wasn't quite saying. I pushed Leon
a little further, tossing in a gentle curve ball, just over the edge of the plate, to test his stance.
"But seven minutes of waiting in line isn't much of an exchange for seven minutes of hanging
out with friends. How is getting stuck with the line better?"
      "Hmm. It's not that the line is better, it's that I have the line experience to be grateful for. I
can't appreciate what I don't have, I can only appreciate what I do have. If there's a delay, what
comes out of the delay is what I get. What I'm missing, I'm not really missing, because it didn't
really happen, right?"
      My friend was heading somewhere interesting, but he hadn't quite hit a convincing
argument. I sent him another pitch, low and away, to see if he'd follow it. "If it didn't happen,
and you wanted it to, isn't that something to be upset about?"
      "That's not really the issue. The uncertainty of the future provides the illusion that the past
is mutable. We thus believe we have a valid reason for being upset at the past when it didn't
work out right, but in fact we were doing what we thought was best in the first place. You can't
get upset over the past any more than you can get upset because of the laws of physics.
      "Look at it this way." Leon continued. "From my perspective now, what happened was I
went to the Féve, waited in line for a while, and then received a thousand-dollar smile from a
beautiful woman. After that I hung out with friends for half an hour before class. That was my
actual experience, and if I am to cherish my moments, those are the moments available for me to
cherish. If there had been no woman to be excited about, I could tell myself that in some
theoretical alternate universe there was a shorter line and I spent thirty-five minutes with my
friends instead of thirty. But that's just a fantasy universe of my own making, right? I'm not
going to make up some imaginary five minute conversation that I might have had with Thanh
and pretend to the end of my days that it happened. If I'm going to pine over a fantasy universe
with a shorter line, I might as well be furious over not being in a fantasy universe where I win
the lottery. Neither one exists, so I didn't "miss out" on anything."
      His stance was solid. His form was good. Just a little more juice should do it. Here you go,
buddy: fast ball, down the middle. "But the lottery's not a very plausible universe, while a short
line is. If you're stuck in line for those five minutes, aren't they still wasted?"
      "No, they're not. Not at all. What you're hoping for doesn't have anything to do with the
quality of what you actually get. Let's say it takes me ten years to graduate from Oberlin.
Everyone would say I'm six years behind the rest of you. You're well-established and I'm just
starting out. But it's not true. You don't possess six special years that I somehow don't get. You'll
be twenty-eight, I'll be twenty-eight. I may be looking for my first job, and you may be on your
fourth job, but we've still both lived the exact same number of years. I didn't miss anything."
      I could see a light go on behind his eyes.
      "All right, this is it: Time cannot be wasted. It just passes. Minutes are spent. That's how it
works. The ability to 'lose' time is a myth. The time is there, and we do with it whatever we do
with it. When it comes down to it, we can either appreciate what we get or not appreciate what
we get, that's our only choice. I choose to appreciate it."
    Home run, my friend, home run. Right out of the park. To this day I stand by his
conclusion. Sometimes life is miserable, but I don't compound the misery by moaning that it
should have been otherwise. And in turn sometimes life is pleasant; in such cases I feel I've been
given a gift and savor it all the more.

     By the end of breakfast, Leon and Thanh had welcomed me into their fold. For two years, I
would spend nearly as much time in their room as my own, a veritable third roommate. They
also both quickly came to accept Ginevra as a valuable source of Oberlin wisdom and a
wellspring of good humor. I, of course, was swiftly becoming enmeshed in my crush, and in the
beginning I believe Leon was a little sweet on her as well. As for the inscrutable Thanh, I'm
usually happier when I don't know what's going on inside his skull.
     I didn't know it then, but after only an hour of my first day at Oberlin I was well on my way
to establishing my circle of friends. By the end of the day, its rudimentary structure would be
     Ginevra had CRO duties to attend to which drew her back to the dorm after breakfast.
Thanh had to go to an introductory meeting for the field hockey team. Leon suggested he and I
explore downtown, in part so he could look into the bookstore and purchase his materials for the
semester. Feeling slightly abashed for having lost Ixthyaki, I pondered for a moment returning to
my room, before deciding instead to accompany my new friend. Ish and I, I figured, would have
plenty of time to catch up with each other. He'd last been seen in the company of others, so I
wasn't leaving him lonely.
     Leon and I bonded in the bookstore (Co-op), conversed in the coffee shop (the Féve), dug
each other in the drug store (SuperX), guffawed in Gibsons (general store), made friends in
Miranda (used bookstore), and became brothers at the bank (First National).
     We finally parted ways after lunch. Distracted by the volume of goodies in the bookstore
we barely made it to the dining hall in time to snag a sandwich before the place closed down.
While waiting for the sandwich, I gazed longingly at tantalizing retreating trays of tacos and
cheese fries, salivating to make Pavlov proud. Sadly, the delights all vanished before I could
help myself to any of them. Had I known then that I would be eating the same taco recipe three
and four times a week for the next four years, their disappearance into the recesses of the
kitchen might not have caused me such anguish. However it was, the sandwich was all I got, and
it was plenty. With little to do and such a great volume of food available to me, I would spend
the majority of the next few weeks stuffed to the gills before the cornucopia gradually lost its
     Not surprisingly, I gained some weight my freshman year, though I lost most of it in
successive years as my delight with the menu wore thin. What is surprising is that while most
colleges have an average freshman weight gain, Oberlin (at least according to student myth) has
an average weight loss of roughly ten pounds. I attribute this more to the stressful atmosphere
than to the food, which, while not the world's best, was certainly acceptable. Sure, we
complained about it a lot, but more so out of boredom with the selection than at the actual
quality. Once, while trailing a friend through one of the kitchens, I came across a box of meat
clearly marked "Fit for human consumption." That the fact had to be stated made me a little
nervous, but it didn't change anything. Disturbing, but not unacceptable: that about sums it up.
     After eating, Leon returned to his room to track down Thanh. I stopped briefly at my own
room to gather some papers and take a quick look at the campus map before setting out in
search of Finney Chapel.
     Finney was actually very easy to find. It was only half a block away from my dorm and is
within sight of the dining hall where I'd just had lunch. It's located on the central quad of
Oberlin College, along with Peters and Cox, the main administration buildings; King, the
primary classroom building; Rice, which is connected to King and contains mostly faculty
offices; Dascomb, a cafeteria and dormitory; Warner, home of dance and theater classes; and
Mudd, the computing center and library. The last major building on the block was Wilder, the
student union, which contained the mailroom, the snack bar (good for a quick meal on the go),
the 'Sco, [Footnote: The Disco, commonly called the 'Sco, was the single on-campus
bar/dancing establishment, featuring darts, pool, a selection of beer, and students performing as
DJs. Off campus, Oberlin had one bar (two in later years when the Féve opened upstairs) and
zero dancing establishments. It's a good thing that dancing, unlike political ranting, is not a basic
requirement for life, or we all would have shriveled up long ago.] and a number of classrooms
and offices, among many other things. This collection of buildings ringed a central grassy lot
known as Wilder bowl. If anything could hold the distinction of being the heart of OC, it was
Wilder Bowl. During the day, a vortex of humanity threaded the maze of sidewalks between
King, Mudd, Wilder, and Dascomb, each individual following his own private pattern. Campus
bulletin boards were positioned conveniently around the square. The sidewalks in between these
buildings continually sported chalk and paper notices about campus events. In the warmer
months, students lounged in the sun, studying, munching on carry-out from the snack bar, or just
hanging out. Frisbees and footballs were common. Rallies and live music were frequent. The
'Sco even occasionally served its Friday afternoon TGIF beer in the bowl. If you lived on south
campus or studied in the conservatory, it was possible to avoid north campus entirely, and those
who lived in the north or studied sciences could manage to never set foot on south campus, but
no one could avoid Wilder bowl.
     [Footnote: Jokes circulated about making suggestively pornographic phrases from the
buildings around Wilder Bowl: everyone tittered at "King Peters" and "Wilder Cox."]
     Finney Chapel was the site for much of the College's live entertainment, including almost
every show that originated outside of Oberlin. Concerts, comedy, and acrobatics were all
performed there. Speeches were spoken there. Forums, hearings: Finney was the place. It also
housed one of the campus organs, and at midnight on a few select nights of each semester a
handful of organ performance majors would hold what was known as an organ pump. De la
Soul would play there. Aretha Franklin. Leo Kotke. The Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling
troupe. Chicago's Second City improv comedy troupe. Symphonies and orchestras from
everywhere. That's what Finney was for. Despite being called a chapel, I know of no religious
events which went on in that place. That's if you don't count the organ pump as a religious
experience, I should say.
     It's an impressive and attractive building, with a long and pointed inverted-v shaped roof,
tan tiles patterning the outside and the patio in front. My favorite feature was the large circular
stained glass window with an intriguingly asymmetric design which graced the upper-front
portion of the building. Many a night I paused in passing to admire the window as a glow from
within caused it to shine outward over Tappan Square.
     Unlike so many of my other interactions with the building, this first visit was not inspired
by the prospect of entertainment. Instead I presented myself for an informative and mandatory
meeting about financial aid, particularly with regards to the government Stafford and Perkins
loans, through which I would be signing away a large portion of my first ten years of post-
college earnings.
     It was with a little trepidation that I entered the building. Partly this was because I was
nervous about putting myself in debt by signing up for $5000 in loans per year that I did not
know I would be able to pay back. (And I still don't, truth to tell.) But also, to be completely
candid, I harbored a niggling fear that by entering a building entitled "chapel" I might be setting
myself up to be prayed at. Oberlin, of course, is the last place in the world something like that
would happen, but on that first day I was still uninitiated enough not to be sure. That particular
fear about college was among the first of my many worries to be set aside. Not to fret, though;
the angst police had already lined up a replacement for the discarded concern with worries about
the Oberlin arch and whether or not I would walk through it on my graduation day, four years
     I entered the building and took a deep breath of relief in the cooler, air-conditioned
atmosphere. With a swipe of my hand, I cleared the sweat from the bridge of my nose. A few
students milled in the entryway, some talking, some holding papers. One of them, a moderately
chubby young woman with dyed-black hair, handed me a packet as I passed through the
doorway into the main room of Finney. Dark wood pews stretched in three rows down the
sloping floor to a raised stage at the front. At the back of the stage, a forest of organ pipes
towered towards the sky. Above me, more dark wood stretched in a U-shaped balcony.
     I worked my way down one of the aisles and slipped into an empty pew halfway down. A
young man sat in front of me with his parents.
     When I sat down, he turned around to greet me. I realized I'd seen him before; he was the
student I'd let into the dorm the previous night. He seemed to recognize me, too. "Hey, good to
see you again. I'm Seth."
     "Martin," I said, still noncommittal about whether that was my first name or my last name.
     "So you've got a bunch of these loans, too?"
     "Where are you from? I'm from Pennsylvania. Northwest of Philadelphia, in the suburbs."
     "Yeah? I was down there last spring. For spring break. Some friends and I drove down and
we hung out for a week. It was great. I'd never been to Florida before, and it was just beautifully
warm. We went swimming every day, it was so nice."
     "Tallahassee's not bad, but it sorta loses its charm when you spend your whole life there."
     "Nah, it's a great town. We had all kinds of fun. I'd love to go back again. Though I'd like to
check out the Keys, too, one of these days. Maybe try snorkeling or scuba diving. I hear it's great
down there. I'd probably hit Tallahassee on the way there, or on the way back, though. My uncle
lives down there. He owns a bookstore down there: Gutenberg's."
     "You're kidding! I go there all the time. It's maybe two miles from me."
     "Weird. We hung out in that part of town when we weren't at the beach. Which was maybe
half the time. We spent a lot of time hanging out on the college campus, too. Just trying to see
what college life was like. We played a bunch of frisbee golf on the course they've got there.
Now that's a blast! You ever play it?"
     "Yeah, I've played it a couple of times," I said.
     "Cool. I wish we had one of those courses back home. Or here. Oh! Hey, what was the
name of the pizza shop near the bookstore? My friends and I ate there like four or five times that
week. It's got the big green sign."
     "Yeah! Those guys are great. I loved their Chicago-style pizzas, too. They were excellent!"
     A minute later I climbed over the pew to take a seat next to Seth. His parents greeted me
warmly and thanked me again for the small service I'd performed the night before. Seth
continued his whirlwind conversation. And in the dozen minutes between my sitting down and
the beginning of the financial aid meeting, a solid friendship was formed.

     I made the acquaintance of the esteemed Señor Manuel Cortiz that evening over the late-
day repast. Initially I'd planned to try to find Ish, but somehow I managed to get myself
distracted and maybe a little lost exploring Mudd library. It's a large and diverse place. There's
A-level, which is downstairs from the entrance, and which contains the computing center, the
computer store, the reserve reading room, and enough study space to be a popular hangout.
Although A-level is technically downstairs, it actually has large glass windows on two sides
which reveal the outside world--partly because the ground around Mudd has been dug into to
create a sort of waterless moat, and partly because the main floor entrance is in reality higher
than ground level, due to a long, sloping access ramp. It's a strange setup, and on really icy,
windy days it can be almost impossible to ascend the ramp and get inside the library. Starting
with the entrance level, there are four stories of books, desks, and couches, with a handful of
offices and an AV department to boot. The sheer volume of books was overwhelming. So much
knowledge, so much wisdom, so much paper. I wanted to check out everything. So I wandered
the aisles picking up books and skimming a few pages before putting them back again in favor
of the next tantalizing hardcover. When I finally extracted myself from my reading frenzy, it
was well into the dinner hour. Not surprisingly, Ixthyaki wasn't home when I swung by the
dorm. Once again I was to dine without the company of my eminent roommate.
     After gathering an array of entrees, beverages, and a heaping mound of steaming, oozing
cheese fries, I attempted to find a seat or locate Ish in the clamoring press of the Biggs dining
     But alas! To no avail came my efforts! Defeated by the crush of humanity, our hero quit the
stage of that most worthy pod and retired to the relatively dull roar of Langston. Upon arriving,
shock, delight, and amazement coursed through his veins as he discovered that his newfound
friends from that morning, Leon and Thanh, were seated and still consuming their repast at the
end of one lengthy table. And what great luck! Beside them was open a glorious space, a
clearing for freedom and nourishment, at which our hero could rest his mortal coil. And with
those two excelsior compatriots sat a third upstanding gentleman of dauntless mettle and
incalculable worth. The name of this itinerant scholar, this most doughty of companions, was
Manuel. In his company and theirs did our hero dine in great opulence and with indomitable
gusto, while Manuel's calculated antics and noble bearing brought both merriment and
enlightenment to an already impressive social setting.
     Thus it was that my inner circle of friends became fulfilled, and it was with a joyous heart
and rumbling stomach that I could return afterwards to my spare but utilitarian domicile.
      Sometimes Manny brings out my sense of the dramatic. Actually, maybe it's more heroic
than dramatic. Hanging out with him could be like hanging out with two entirely different
people who just happened to be located within the same body. There was Manny the jokester,
twentieth century slapstick artist and funny as hell; and then there was Manuel Cortiz, knight
errant and direct descendant of the Spanish conquistadors. How they both got along with each
other is a mystery to me. Nevertheless, my friend somehow managed to pull together one
complete and very enjoyable package.
      He, Leon, and I were hanging out in his room one winter evening, doing nothing in
particular. There was a knock at the door. "Who is it?" Manny asked.
      "Hey Manny, it's Erica."
      "No thanks. We don't want any!" he shouted.
      "Ha ha. No, really, I've got a computer question."
      Manny shuffled over to the door. He reached for the knob but then jerked away as a visible
bolt of blueish electricity jumped between it and him. Glaring balefully at the door as if to keep
it in line, he slowly reached for the knob again. No blue bolts this time. He grinned, nodded to
himself in satisfaction, and opened the door.
      I'd never formally met Erica before, but I'd seen her around the dorm a few times. Average
height, a little on the heavy side. She had a prominent mole at her temple that drew my eye to it
repeatedly, despite my best attempts not to fixate on it.
      "Hey, Manny, I'm having some trouble with my computer. I was wondering if you could
help, maybe?"
      With a flourish, Manuel waved the distressed damsel into a seat. "Certainly, m'lady. What
difficulties ail you, and how may I, your humble servant, be of assistance?" he asked. So maybe
the real words were more like "Sure, what's up?" but it was obvious what he meant.
      "Well, you see, I just got a new monitor, 'cause my old one burnt out on me last week. But
when I plug it in all I get is a bunch of wavy lines. I don't know what to do, and I've got a paper
due tomorrow that I haven't even started."
      Manuel reassured her. "Never fear, young lass, your troubles are over. I shall not quit the
field until all your worries have been put to rest. Save your mental convolutions and anguish for
the long and undoubtedly treacherous assignment you face this evening. Come along gentlemen,
we have a quest!" And with that utterance, the gallant young man ushered the damsel and his
trusty retainers (me and Leon) out the door and along the winding path to Erica's abode.
      Erica let us into the room and pointed Manny towards the computer. He nosed around
behind her desk for a bit, puttering and muttering. Within a minute, he had dust streaked down
the black sweatshirt he was wearing, and another smudge graced the middle of his forehead.
"Hmm. Okay, I think this little piece is your problem. It's the adapter." He held up in his left
hand a piece of metal and plastic, roughly one inch by one inch by a quarter inch.
      "Oh no, what's wrong with it?"
      "Well, for one thing, it just disappeared." Manny passed his right hand over his left, and
indeed the adapter did disappear into one of his fists. But then he stretched out his arms and
splayed his fingers wide; the adapter was nowhere to be seen. He waggled his eyebrows
suggestively. "See? It's gone! Eh? Eh?"
      We all oohed and aahed appreciatively, except for Erica, who was too worried to think
about anything but the paper. "Am I going to have to get another one? How much do they cost?
I don't think the computer store is open this late anyway. What am I going to do?"
     "Don't worry, I found it." Manny reached behind Erica's ear and produced the plug again. I
was watching the entire time, and I'd swear he pulled it from thin air. "Actually, it's fine. You've
just got to set all these tabs for the new size and resolution, see? The old monitor was a different
size and needed another setting. All the numbers are written on the bottom. This is a fifteen inch
monitor, right?"
     "Uh, I think so."
     Manuel made a few subtle adjustments to the miniature tabs on the device. "Well, then,
perhaps the fates will shine kindly on us if we try this recommended solution. Just bear with me
briefly, if you would. Barring any unforseen interference, in but a moment felicity shall once
again be yours. There. As I expected. Is this acceptable?"
     "Yeah, that's great! Thank you so much!"
     "The pleasure was all mine. Verily then if all is well I shall now retire with my compatriots
to my own domicile and leave you to your scholarly pursuits," Manuel said.
     "Oh yeah, the paper. God, I'm gonna be up all night."
     "Well, I do wish the lady the fleetest of thoughts, the most poignant turns of phrase, a swift
completion, and the best of luck."
     "Thanks, I need it."
     When we got back to his room, Manny glanced anxiously around the room. Obviously
looking for something, he patted himself down but couldn't seem to find the object of his desire.
     "Hey, Leon, give me your lighter."
     "Sure. Here."
     Manny dropped to the floor, where he lay on his back with his legs spread wide in the air.
"Martin, hit the lights."
     I complied with the instructions, and the room fell into darkness, but only momentarily.
Soon enough Manny got the lighter working. He positioned the flame over the seat of his pants
and then let loose with a tremendous burst of gas. Blue-orange flame leapt into the air, then died
back. It licked along the seam of his jeans for a moment longer before disappearing completely.
     "How about that one, man?" he asked.
     We agreed it had been impressive, certainly more dramatic than most of our previous
attempts, of which there had been a good number. Leon and I took our turns trying to produce
enough fuel to burn. Then we moved on to other things. Leon tried to belch the alphabet. I
demonstrated that I could bend my thumb all the way back to my wrist. Manny ran through the
alphabet backwards in less than fifteen seconds. We each took turns rolling our tongues, trying
to wiggle our ears, and trying to figure out how to whistle with as much skill while breathing in
as we did while breathing out so that we could beat the Guinness book record for the longest
continual whistle.
     A while later, standing on one leg, with a book poised on his head and a pencil balanced
vertically on one fingertip, a strange look suddenly crossed Manuel's face. His observation still
makes me laugh: "So this is college, huh?"

     Days passed in learning and adjustment. Gradually the campus names and walkways began
to become familiar. South, Talcott, Harkness, the Conservatory, East, Bosworth. Baldwin, the
women's dorm, I could remember because in high school I knew a girl--or should I say woman
now--by the last name of Baldwin. I quickly found the athletic fields and climbed Mount
Oberlin, an artificial twenty-foot grassy knoll that towered over all of Lorain county. A tour
officially introduced me to the library system. And it took no more than a day for me to learn
well the lonely emptiness of a vacant mailbox.
     Surprises abounded at every turn. There was a basketball court in the basement of Asia
house. Zeke, the dorm that everyone agreed came closest to being an Oberlin fraternity, had a
pool table in its lounge. It frequently went by ZKE in imitation of the Greek/fraternity lettering
system. Because of its proximity to the gym, Zeke housed a higher-than-average number of
athletes. The outsider may be nodding sagely at this revelation, but the truth is there were few
Oberlin athletes who were not also consummate scholars.
     I discovered more delightful opportunities for education. In January, Oberlin had a month-
long intensive study program called Winter Term. Students were required to do three of these
projects to graduate, but the topic of the course could be anything of their choosing as long as a
faculty member sponsored the project. There was a roughly even split between internships,
classes sponsored by the college, and personal projects. Legends abounded about past Winter
Terms: a guy who lived for a month on only Guinness and milk, students who traveled the
world, students who went without speaking, students who took a tab of acid a day for the entire
month. Some were obviously untrue, some probably had happened; all were inspiring. And then
there was this Experimental College program (ExCo), where students taught other students
anything and everything. Beer brewing, juggling, Anime, creative writing, astrology, mythology,
The Simpsons, knitting, board games, acting, sports, drawing, and more. The list was
overwhelming. Good for some minimal academic credit, the ExCo courses primarily provided a
source of entertainment, a "fun" class in the midst of the typical serious and heavy course load.
The classes were designed to allow Obies to share with other Obies that which fascinated them,
that which made them special. Somehow during the college-choosing process I'd managed to
overlook these two gems, but I firmly believe they were among the brightest of Oberlin's

      Seth and I shared our first ExCo course: astrology. We were there for very different
reasons. I was fascinated by the subject as much for the astronomy and the tradition as for any
potential insight into my life. Though I wasn't ready to discount it entirely, I also didn't take it
very seriously. But the sense of friendly mysticism appealed to me, seemed like an area worth
exploring. In the end I found it interesting mostly for the variety of ways it assessed people:
These interpretations gave me insights into the behavior and attitudes of my friends and the
other strangers around me. I didn't draw up charts for anyone; rather I just used the personality
traits the horoscopes provided and applied those labels as appropriate. My understanding of the
number and variety of facets people could have--their potential depth of character--greatly
increased because of that course.
      Seth took the class as an experiment. He was skeptical and wanted to test the results. So he
took the birth dates of a dozen different friends and researched them all. Then he applied every
description to himself to see which one seemed to describe him best. He was surprised to find
the one that actually belonged to his birthday is the one that he chose. But then he turned over
the descriptions to his friends, giving each friend an incorrect summary. He asked them all what
they thought of the results. The next week he told them he might have made a mistake and gave
them their real charts to see which they thought was a better fit. Most of his friends stuck with
the original, incorrect reading. Seth took this to mean the system was flawed and happily went
back to his science courses. We should have known from the beginning that hard science would
appeal to the guy. After all, who else but one meant for science would take an astrology course
as a form of research?
     Seth and I met up in the snack bar before the class. I tossed him the deck of tarot cards I'd
purchased for the class and, while I ate, he laid out a fifteen-card spread. It was a kind of extra-
credit experiment for my friend. Still unpracticed with the set, I referred him to the booklet that
came with the cards for all of his divinatory questions. For a while he flipped pages in silence.
"Let's see. This one in the middle is supposed to represent me. The six of swords: Science. Huh.
That's oddly appropriate."
     He flipped some more, tracking down meaning. Suddenly he gave a sharp laugh. "These
three cards are supposed to be my future. I have both the six and seven of disks, Success and
Failure respectively. And the trump The Priestess, which reads 'Pure, exalted and gracious
influence enters the matter, hence change, alteration, increase and decrease, fluctuation.' Seems
pretty wishy washy to me. No wonder people listen to these things. Who's going to argue with
'you'll win some and lose some'? And in this section, the cards are supposed to help me make
any decisions, but I'm getting stuff like The Aeon, which just says 'Final decision concerning the
past. New current for the future. Always represents the taking of a definite step.' So I'm
supposed to make a decision by making a decision? I don't buy it."
     "Seth, if this is an experiment, shouldn't you remain neutral until the experiment's over? At
the very least you've gotta give it a few days to see if the message fits into anything in your life."
     "But how can 'make a decision' not fit into my life? We're always making decisions."
     "Well, they have to be somewhat vague, or seventy-odd cards couldn't possibly give useful
advice. What do you want? A "you will buy a new computer today" card? There are all kinds of
cases where The Aeon would make sense. People ride the fence all the time, torn between two
jobs, two parties, two women, two desserts, whatever."
     "I just have both desserts. Or both women." He flashed me a wicked grin. Irrepressible, that
     "You know what I mean."
     "Yeah, sure. But what about this? Forces beyond my control: happiness. What kind of
advice is that? Look out, I might have to adjust to being happy! Ha ha!"
     "Fair enough. But next time you're so unbearably happy it makes you sick just watching
yourself, don't say the cards didn't warn you."
     "Sure, Martin. Sure."
     A young man who was walking by stopped to peer over Seth's shoulder. "Hey, cool! Are
those tarot cards? I think those things are so neat. I got a tarot card reading at a renaissance fair
once. It really gave me a lot of guidance." I flinched every time he pronounced "tarret" cards, but
I would have let it slide.
     Seth set him straight, though. "I think it's pronounced 'taro.' It comes from the French."
     "Oh. Really? Hey, um, would it be all right if I looked at them for a moment?"
     Having just finished packing them back into a deck, Seth glanced questioningly in my
direction. "Martin?"
     "Why not?" I shrugged.
     Seth handed him the cards. "I'm Seth, by the way."
     "Hey, thanks. I'm Rafe." He flipped through the deck, oohing and aahing.
     "So you really found the reading you got useful?" Ever the scientist, Seth couldn't pass up a
chance to collect another data point.
     "Oh, totally. It was about a year ago. I was trying to decide where to go to college, but I
couldn't make up my mind. The woman who did the reading told me that I'd have to choose
between financial success and doing what was right. And then it all just snapped into place. I
had to do what was right, and that meant coming to Oberlin. So here I am."
     "You hear that, Seth? She told him he'd have to make a decision." I prodded his forearm
with my finger to make the point. He cocked an eyebrow, then gave a slight shrug. Apparently
the verdict was still out as far as he was concerned. Hell, I didn't take it that seriously, either;
just playing the devil's advocate game with a friend.
     Rafe handed the cards back to Seth. "Hey, I was wondering ... would you be willing to give
me a reading? I've been sorta trying to work my way through a couple of things and I could
probably use some cosmic input."
     Seth checked his watch. "I would but we've got class in about ten minutes. There isn't time
to get through everything." Rafe's face fell, clearly disappointed. "Oh, I tell you what. I'll do a
quick-and-dirty version."
     The young man brightened immediately, practically squirming with excitement. Seth
shuffled the cards for a moment. "Okay, think of your question. Keep it firmly in mind, and
imagine a white light forming around you. Now here, cut the deck, and pull out two cards: one
for the present, and one for the future."
     I wasn't so sure that was a valid way to treat the cards. You can't just make up your own
rules, can you? "Uh, Seth, I don't think you can-"
     "Not now, Martin. Let the man concentrate."
     Rafe paused thoughtfully for a moment, then split the cards roughly down the middle. He
flipped two cards out onto the table.
     "Let's see," Seth said, paging through the book. "The first card is the present situation, and
we've got The Hermit. It says, 'Counsel. Prudence. Discretion. Caution. Vigilance.
Circumspection. Self-denial. Withdrawal. Regression. Tendency to withhold emotion. Fear of
discovery.' Hm."
     As Seth read, Rafe's eyes widened, and his cheeks began to glow bright pink. I'd swear he
even gave a little start at "Fear of discovery."
     "So some of that seems to fit?" Seth asked.
     "Yeah. It's uncanny."
     "Well, the second card is the Seven of Cups. The book says 'Fantasy. Unrealistic attitudes.
Imagination. Daydreams. Foolish whims. Wishful thinking. Illusionary success.'"
     "Oh." Rafe sighed, looking disappointed. "Well, that's pretty clear. Huh. I guess-"
     Seth interrupted him. "Wait a minute. The card's upside down, so that would give it a
reverse meaning. Let's see. Here you are: 'Desire. Determination. Strong willpower. A goal
nearly attained. Intelligent choice. Will. Resolution.' That's a lot different. Does that help?"
     "Uh, yeah. I think it does. Yeah. That answers a lot, actually. Hey, thanks a lot for doing the
     "No problem. Glad it meant something to you. What did you ask about, anyway?"
     Our new acquaintance blushed again. "Uh, I'd, ah, rather not go into it. Relationship stuff, I
guess you could say."
     The two continued to talk for a few minutes, while I scooped up the deck and shuffled it
idly. I didn't buy that there was any higher guidance coming from the cards. Still, it was odd
how accurate the cards could be sometimes. I'd done a reading for Ginevra the week before that
had come out strangely pertinent. But plenty of other times I'd gotten a mess of contradictions or
vague conclusions. The whole scenario was very hit-or-miss. Today, for some reason, the cards
seemed to be right on.
      While my hands worked, I thought back to that afternoon spent with Ginevra, talking
astrology. She wasn't in the class, but she was curious--about both the topic and Seth's
experiments, which I relayed to her. Mmm, Ginevra surrounded by white light and little else,
now that was a picture.
      Just out of curiosity, I cut the deck in half to see what it had to say about the woman. The
Queen of Swords. "A graceful woman, intensely perceptive, a keen observer, subtle interpreter,
and an intense individualist, confident, gracious, and just.' That was just about right. Eerie.
      I thought about Leon and tried it again. I got another sword card, the Prince this time. It
seemed like the whole deck was made of swords. Again the description seemed spine-tinglingly
accurate. "A young man, purely intellectual, full of ideas and designs, domineering, intensely
clever but unstable of purpose, with an elusive and elastic mind supporting various and
contradictory opinions. He slays as fast as he creates." That was Leon, all right. Maybe I
wouldn't call him domineering, though he usually took the lead when it came to choosing
activities or even walking across campus. Other than that, it was dead-on.
      Okay, one more. This time I'd do myself and see what the cards had to say. I flipped over a
card and saw The Fool looking back at me. The booklet read, "In spiritual matters, represents
ideas, thoughts, spirituality, that which endeavors to transcend earth. In material matters may
show, if ill-dignified, folly, eccentricity, even mania. It represents the original, subtle, sudden
impulse coming from a strange and unexpected quarter." Hm. Well. They can't all make sense, I
      Seth interrupted my research. "Hey Martin, we've got to get to class. Rafe, it was nice
meeting you." Rafe exchanged handshakes with both of us and picked up whatever trail he had
left off when he stopped to talk to us. I slapped the halves of the deck back together and popped
it into the card box.
      Gathering his belongings, Seth said, "Well, that was an interesting little cameo."
      "Yeah, you know, the brief appearance where they shout 'Hey! Look at me!' before they
fade back into obscurity for the remaining four years. That's how it works around here."
      "What do you mean?"
      "People do it all the time. The strange woman in the TV lounge some Tuesday. The guy
who sits with you at dinner once when it's crowded. The random person you strike up a
conversation with while you're waiting in line. They're all one-shot deals. Just a brief
introduction, they do their shtick, and then they head back out the way they came. And you
never see them again. It's a total cameo."
      "I'd never thought about it like that before." Maybe Seth picked up on this particular system
because he and I have different methods for dealing with cameos. I do occasionally interact with
the people who make random appearances, but Seth talks to every single one of them. Normally
I'm somewhere intermediate on the scale from shy to outgoing; Seth is so friendly he makes me
look downright timid.
     "Yeah, that's how it works. I've even seen this guy around a few times. There was a part of
me that was thinking, 'Hey, it's that guy doing his cameo' even as he stopped to talk to us. Did
you see the way he blushed? I'll bet he's still trying to figure out how to come out of the closet."
     "At Oberlin? Not likely. I think he's just got a crush on someone and he doesn't know how
to tell her."
     "Are you kidding? My gaydar was pinging off the charts. He may have a crush, but it's on a
     "Seth, you're imagining things. There might have been a blip or two, but certainly nothing
more than what I might set off."
     "Well?" He arched his eyebrow suggestively.
     "I'm straight, Seth."
     "Sure you are."
     Laughing at his audacity, I threw my backpack over one shoulder and headed for the exit. In
an open-minded place like Oberlin, accusing a straight person of being secretly gay was source
of humor, though not nearly as hilarious as the few times I found myself accusing a gay friend of
being secretly straight. "All right, come on. We're going to be late for class."

      Although I quickly made several good friends at Oberlin, there were plenty less-than-great
moments during those first days, too. I found myself surprised by how much I missed home and
my friends from high school. I was a long way from any of them. If I'd stayed in-state and gone
to FSU, UF, or USF, I could have been hanging out with half a dozen or so friends at each place.
I missed the easy rapport, the mildly caustic banter, the inside jokes and shared history that I'd
created as "me" throughout all the years of my life. Oberlin was another place, and distant in
more ways than geographically. Attempts at abrasively friendly humor--typical Dale behavior--
fell flat and shocked or even alienated a few early acquaintances. I even had a few eerily
uncomfortable moments when I caught "Martin" doing something that I knew "Dale" wouldn't
      My halfhearted attempts to get settled left me uncomfortable in my own room. Ixthyaki was
nothing but a gentleman, of course; always polite, always considerate, never put out, and it
annoyed the fuck out of me despite knowing that I was being irrational. My roommate seemed
to have established himself happily into a social circle of his own. Within a few weeks he'd even
started dating a young woman named Mirriam. I began to spend more and more time avoiding
our room in favor of my friends' rooms. Whenever I could, I tagged along with Ginevra. If not
her, Leon, Thanh, Manny, or Seth were sure to be able to put me up for a few hours.
      There was a lot of variety I had to get used to as well. Everybody seemed to be from
California or The City (with all their arrogant New-Yorker centrism). Different fashions,
different musical tastes, different expressions. ("Jeesum Crow!" is a popular expletive in certain
parts of New England, I learned.) More ethnicities, more religious beliefs, more dietary
constraints, and more people from countries that had till the week before been nothing other
than pink, orange, and purple blobs on a piece of paper. Now the residents of those blobs were
confiding abashedly to me that they weren't really sure yet what they wanted to major in, but
they were definitely interested in creative writing.
      After orientation the upperclassmen began to arrive, too. You could tell that they were older
and wiser. Sometimes their greater age was apparent, but more than anything it was the self-
assurance with which they carried themselves that gave them away. They'd had a year or two, or
three, in which to become confident they were not about to make some sort of huge anti-PC
faux pas. That confidence was lacking from the countenance of many of the first years--I mean
freshlings--who expected to be corrected frequently and with great indignation. The
upperclassmen also carried their share of cynicism because they knew the place. They knew that
meat, labor, God, society, affirmative action, environment, and feminism were fighting words,
along with half a thousand others, and that uttering such words would start an altercation,
whether or not everyone at the table was already on their side. The upperclass women
complained about the lack of assertiveness on the part of Oberlin men, and the straight freshman
males went around worried to distraction that the attractive woman they just met would turn out
to be a lesbian--and would, presumably, scream bloody rape if asked out on a date.
      I'm not sure why it was such an issue. Worldwide, the l/g/b population is reputed to be
around ten percent; at Oberlin that group, plus experimentals, undecideds, and indeterminates,
were rumored to take up as much as twenty-five percent. This still left three-quarters of the
campus as purely straight, plus a good number who might be flexible but still interested.
Nevertheless, fear of being shot down by a lesbian was prevalent. Trying to discredit the theory,
a frustrated cameo friend from the student lounge once remarked, "It's a ridiculous fear. I always
assume every woman I meet is bisexual and she can stop me if she's a lesbian." Personally, I'm
not sure I'm swayed by his logic, either, but-
      But it should be noted that all my ideas about Oberlin aren't entirely true, in any strict sense
of the word. It's just one facet of Oberlin, though as a perspective it's an accurate one. It's deep,
it's insightful, it's achingly, powerfully true, and yet it only tells one small portion of the story. It
is true that the student body is neurotic, self-absorbed, argumentative, and a pain in the ass if
you hit a nerve. But it's equally true that Obies are as kind, generous, compassionate, and
accepting as any folk you'll find underneath the starry skies.
      Here, though, is another of the darker aspects of the truth about the College.
      "Hey, Martin, are you up for sex at seven?" Ginevra asked.
      "What?" Blood thudded through my veins until my vision dimmed. Had there been a
change of heart? Had she seen the light, dumped her boyfriend Brent, and decided to make me a
happy, happy man?
      "Sex at seven. Do you want to go?"
      "I think so, but you can't be asking what it sounds like you're asking." Please be asking what
I think you're asking. Please be asking what I think you're asking. Please-
      Ginevra hit me playfully on the shoulder. "No, silly. The play, Sex at Seven. It's part of
orientation. To teach you all about sexual harassment."
      "Oh, great." Damn. Damn damn damn! "Yeah, I'll go, even if I'm not really in the mood."
      "Great! Just let me slip into something more comfortable, and we can round up Katie,
Allison, Rob, and Josh."
      For some reason, nearly twenty percent of the Oberlin male population seemed to be named
Josh. Perhaps ten percent went by some version of Rafael, and another ten percent were named
David. All good Old Testament names, popular with the Jews as well as the Christians, I
suppose. It became confusing sometimes, and required the heavy use of nicknames and last
names, but considering I was the only Dale in the entire school and I didn't get to keep my own
name, maybe I'm just a little sensitive. On the female side of the coin, nearly one fifth of the
women were named some variation of Katherine. Kate, Cat, Cathy, Katerina, Katie, Katy, and
on and on. Another fifteen percent were named Sarah or Sara. Oddly, every Sarah I've ever met
has felt strongly that Sara is a corrupt and insultingly improper version of her name, while every
Sara I've talked to carried absolutely no ill-will towards the Sarahs of the world. Strange but
      Already accustomed to Oberlin's taxonomic statistics, I focused on playing along with
Ginevra's punning. "All right, but don't forget to zip your spanish fly," I said.
      "Ooh, that's just awful!" she replied as she slipped out the door. Ginevra never was one to
pull punches.
      We eventually gathered a group of six or seven other students from our branch of the hall.
Some variation of the "Let's have sex at seven" joke was repeated every thirty seconds on our
way to the auditorium:
      "Do you want to do sex at seven?"
      "I'm game for sex at seven!"
      "Who's free for sex at seven?"
      "I'm looking for sex with seven!"
      "I'm not really up for sex at seven; how about coming back at eight?"
      I became more convinced with each punch line that I should have pled abstinence.
      The play Sex at Seven consisted of a series of vignettes regarding a variety of social/sexual
situations where the final resolution was supposed to stem from discussion with the entire group
of watching students. Most of them weren't very memorable. One dealt with alcohol, something
about taking advantage of someone while drunk. Another featured an aggressive young woman
chasing after an idealistic freshman who was saving himself for marriage. A few dealt with
homosexuality: how to come out to your friends, or how to deal with a crush, or how straight
folks could tactfully avoid the advances of Freddy Flamer. Something like that. Most of the
scenes seemed to have fairly obvious resolutions. From personal experience I've found that
when you're stoned out of your gourd and trying to watch Animaniacs and a resident
homosexual walks into the lounge and plops himself in your lap, if you just ask him nicely to
stand up he'll usually get the point.
      One skit in particular sticks out in my memory, though. A young man lusted after a woman
who was torn over whether or not she was ready for sex. Eventually he coerces her to climb
under the covers and consummates his passion while she lies there listlessly. However, because
of the blankets and the distance, her lassitude wasn't particularly clear. Then in a later scene the
woman confesses to her friend that she thinks she was raped.
      During discussion time, when this particular scene came around, one young man bravely
stood to offer his opinion.
      "I don't see what was so wrong with the scene," he said. "If she let him into her bed, she
knew that he wanted to have sex. Not that letting someone into your bed necessarily means
you're giving them permission to sleep with you, but in this case she said yes and that's what
happened. I don't see how it could seem like rape."
      That's when the actress clarified the scene, "I wasn't participating in the sex, though. I was
just sitting there completely still."
      "Oh," the student said. "Well then the guy should have known that something wasn't right.
Not that just because someone isn't moving necessarily means that something's wrong, but he
should have at least asked her. But if she wasn't happy she should have said something, too. Not
that you have to say something. You shouldn't have to. But if you're not happy you shouldn't just
sit there when you can stop it. Though the guy also should have been careful to find out if she
was okay. But if she said yes and then didn't say no, how could he know that she had changed
her mind? But, I mean, she thought she was raped, so obviously she didn't think she could say
anything or try to stop it ... so he could have ... I mean she should have ... uh, so ... so ..."
     So, red-faced and confused, the young man sank to his seat. Nobody even had to say
anything. Without even a hint of outside interference, the man had beaten himself using just the
hefty weight of too many viewpoints. We all chuckled nervously in the dread presence of our
lord and savior, Political Correctness.

     Ginevra and I argued about a similar topic once. We were sitting in the smoking lounge
sometime freshman year; I was watching her enjoy an after-dinner cigarette, she was
procrastinating. It had to have been in the first couple of months, because they closed down the
smoking lounges sometime before the end of the semester. A guy from the first floor by the
name of Sergio put in a cameo appearance for the duration of the conversation. What he was
doing three floors up when he could have been in lounges in the basement, the first floor, or the
second floor isn't clear. That's the beauty of the cameo: For some inexplicable reason, by some
intricate dance of fate and serendipity, for one moment this person is where you are, and, even
though he never will be again, that moment still plays a critical part in the whole.
     Were life a fractal, the cameo would be one tiny whorl that at first seems to interrupt the
flow of the larger pattern, but with a little perspective it suddenly becomes clear that the whorl
actually fits into another, deeper pattern, a structure three times more complex than the one you
thought you'd been looking at. Sometimes, if you catch them in just the right light, those
intricate little details can crystallize an appreciation for an entirely new level of beauty.
     On that evening, Ginevra started the ball rolling with a question. "Martin, have you heard
about Antioch's new sexual offense policies?"
     "Uh, no, I don't think so. Why?"
     Sergio interjected, "Those guys are completely nuts! It was in The Review. It's like, 'Can I
touch your hand? Now can I touch your elbow? Or can I kiss you once on the nose and then
once on the lips?'"
     Ginevra laughed. "No, no, it's even worse. It's more like, you know, 'Can I touch the first
three fingers of your left hand with my right hand? Now can I transfer those fingers to my left
hand, and also bring your pinky into my grip at the same time?'" They both laughed.
     "Yeah yeah! It's like a menu. 'I'd like to have eighty-five seconds of fellatio, please,
followed by twenty seconds of you playing with my left nipple, then a quick nibble on my right
nipple, and then another fifty-seven seconds of fellatio. Please sign on the line if you agree.'
They're nuts. Totally nuts. Like anybody's really going to follow the code."
     "Um, what are you guys talking about?" I asked.
     "Antioch College just enacted a new policy," Ginevra explained. "When you're in bed,
you're supposed to get permission each time before you touch an area of your partner's body. It's
ridiculously formal."
     "Okay. But maybe they've got a point. Isn't it better to be clear about how far you want to
take things? If it's your first time in bed with someone, maybe getting explicit permission isn't
such a bad idea."
     "But it's not just the first time. It's every time."
     "Every time?"
     "Yeah, every single time."
     Sergio added, "And every major part, each time."
     "Strange," I said. "And why are they doing this?"
     Ginevra explained, "It's to, you know, prevent uncomfortable or unwanted sexual
situations. Presumably it gives everyone plenty of time to stop anything they don't want from
happening. That way there's less of a chance for misunderstandings, they say. Mostly, I think it's
to prevent lawsuits."
     "It takes all of the romance out of it!" Sergio complained. "How are you supposed to stay
passionate when you're running down a checklist of body parts? You're either in the moment, or
you're analyzing the moment, and if you're analyzing then you're not focused on what you're
supposed to be paying attention to. It's crazy. Crazy!"
     Very curious, I thought. My logical mind began its natural probing. "What if you have sex
more than once in a night? Do you have to ask about the same part each time you start?"
     "I think once is enough," Ginevra said. "I'm not sure. But after you've gone through the
whole thing once, you probably don't have time to do it again!"
     She and Sergio chuckled once more. I was too consternated to find it funny. "Do they really
think this is a reasonable system?"
     "Maybe you could write up a contract. Verbally list all the parts and permissions ahead of
time, if you're a serious couple, so you don't have to repeat everything each time. Something like
     "What fun is that?" Sergio objected.
     Ginevra added, "I think the point is that everyone has to agree moment by moment, 'cause if
you're not in the mood some evening you shouldn't be locked in to saying yes, you know?"
     "So this is supposed to apply even if you've been dating for years? Even if you've been
sleeping together every night?"
     "Even then."
     "What about married couples?"
     "Them, too."
     "Huh. Weird."
     "And you haven't even heard the worst part! If the woman's had anything to drink, even a
drop of alcohol, and a man sleeps with her, they consider it rape."
     "You're kidding!"
     "That's ridiculous. For one thing, what's a sip of beer going to do to anyone, anyway? I
could see if they said the woman had had several drinks, maybe, but zero tolerance is unrealistic.
And what if the guy's completely wasted? Maybe he's practically sick from drinking, and she's
had something like half a beer. He's still the guilty one?"
     "So does it just apply to a man and a woman? I mean, what if a lesbian has a few drinks and
sleeps with her lover? Is that okay?"
     "Uh, I don't know. If it's two women, I guess it's okay."
     "What about two guys? One of them is drunk and the other isn't. Does it matter then? Or
what if it's one man and two women in a threesome: If one of the women had a beer and the
other is completely sober, then does the guy have one count of consensual sex and one count of
rape, while the women both have two counts of consensual sex? That's ridiculous! Or what if-"
     "Martin, I didn't make the rules. I don't know. Maybe. You're missing the point here. It's a
horrible rule because it's completely discriminatory. It belittles women."
     "Huh? I don't follow."
     "It's sexually biased. The rule is basically saying that alcohol is okay for guys, but women
can't be trusted. One single drop so clouds their judgement that even if they think they want to
have sex, they're not allowed to because their minds must be so befuddled. It basically implies
that guys are the responsible ones, and that no matter what their state of mind, they're still more
responsible than women. If you follow that logic far enough, if we can't be trusted to have sex,
then we shouldn't be allowed to drive a car if we've had cough syrup, and we shouldn't be
allowed near our children after we've tasted anything with vanilla extract in it. You could be the
president of Oberlin College at a champagne luncheon, and if you're a guy you're fine, but if
you're a woman you'd better shut up and go home, because you're totally unreliable. It's a
complete sexual bias, you know? It's the same old stereotype that says that women are weak,
that I have to have a guy to take care of me."
     "It never would have occurred to me to see it like that," I said. Sergio nodded his
     Full of fire and brimstone, Ginevra continued, "You know, women have been fighting for
centuries for the right to vote or for the right to choose what do with their bodies. The United
States supreme court has decreed that even when there's another potential life on the line, what I
decide about my womb is what happens. After all that, there is no fucking way I'm going to let
someone else dictate when I can and cannot have sex. Half the time that's the whole point of
going out and getting loaded, you know, so you can come home and screw like wildcats when
you're ready. Nobody's taking that right away from me just because some lawyer's wants to cut
down on the potential risk for a lawsuit."
     "Wow." I said. Sergio threw in a hearty, "Yeah." What else could I say? She'd summed up
her points thoroughly, and I wasn't inclined to argue when her eyes were smoldering like that.
Besides, an image of a drunken Ginevra and the phrase "screw like wildcats" had filled my
brain, pushing all other considerations far into the background.

     This leaves only my first meeting with my advisor H. Royden James to set the tone for my
adventures in this small Ohio town. I was nervous, I was sensitive to criticism, and Professor
James was a blast of caffeine and grit into my already untrustworthy nervous system.
     "Good morning, Martin," he said to me.
     A small sigh must have escaped my lips, the last of Dale Martin's resistance collapsing
under the juggernaut of Martin Dalí believers.
     "You doing all right, son?" he asked. I hadn't realized until then that he was from the south.
It hadn't been apparent from his literature, but it carried over slightly in his accent and more
heavily in his mode of speech.
     "Yeah, I'm fine. How are you?"
     "Doing well, doing well. Come on in and have a seat."
     "Thanks." I settled myself into the proffered chair. The office around me glimmered with
polish and efficiency. Slightly cramped by an inordinate number of filing cabinets and
accessories, the room was otherwise clean to the point of being almost spartan. A few small
pictures graced the wall, along with a framed image of the cover from Shades of Grey, James'
most recent novel. The only paper visible in the room was a small steno pad squared away at the
top-left corner of his desk and the folder of information about me, which Mr. James had been
studying when I entered.
      H. Royden James glanced at the sheet again. "So ... you're from Florida?"
      "Yep. Outside of Tallahassee."
      "How did you come to Oberlin?"
      What a question! "Well, I always liked Oberlin's liberal nature--you know, its history and
all the stuff they do now. And its liberal arts background, no required classes like gym or basic
math. Not that I want to avoid anything, because I don't--well, maybe the gym ... not that I'm
opposed to exercise but I'm happy not to have to do that--but I want to try everything else. I
really do like that I don't have to take specific classes if I don't want to sign up for them, even if
there aren't that many classes that I wouldn't want to take. But at least I don't have to take a
freshman composition course to prove I can write. Everyone who gets in here should be more
than capable at writing. We're all bright enough that it shouldn't be too tough to rattle off a
couple of pages." It occurred to me that I was speaking to a published author, who might
construe my comments as belittling. He watched me with an impassive expression. Maybe he
was just too surprised to know how else to look, but I was convinced that his face reflected the
baleful gaze of the haughtily snubbed. "Not that it's easy to write anything, er, everything, as I'm
sure you well know--not to say that it's necessarily a challenge for you, though I'm sure you're
not slacking either, but how would I know whether it's easy or not for you to write--it's just that
we should already have the basics covered by now, and-"
      He seemed to be waiting for me to finish, but I couldn't remember how I'd started, let alone
my eventual point. "And ... um ... yeah," I concluded, lamely.
      "Oh," he said. "I, ah, just meant did you drive up from Florida or did you fly?"
      "Oh! I drove. I mean flew. That is to say I was flying earlier and then I drove here. Not that
I fly myself, just that I get flown. In a passenger jet, not like a chauffeur. And that was much
earlier. Oh boy." I don't even know where my explanation came from. I'd driven all the way
from Florida. The last time I'd been on a plane was nine months before, when we'd gone to New
York to visit relatives. The only explanation is nerves, I guess.
      "Relax, son. I'm just making small talk. You're not supposed to break down until we go
over your schedule."
      "It's a joke, son. You're fine."
      "Fine. Right. Okay." I hate being called son. My father never called me anything other than
Dale, and that's what I'd come to expect from everyone. "Son" is something coaches and
principals use when you're in trouble. Otherwise, it's too personal, it's grating, and when there's
no relation it feels like a kind of authority power play. To be addressed as "son" from my father's
lips would have been disconcerting; from any other man it raised my hackles faster than an eerie
scratching at the door on the night of a full moon. Of course, in the case of H. Royden James it
was just one of his mannerisms. He meant nothing by it other than friendliness, but I didn't
know it at the time. I'd just made a fool of myself, probably insulted him, completely
misunderstood his joke, and I was expecting him to return fire with something abrasive. So
that's how I saw it when he called me "son."
      We sat there for a moment in silence, playing tag with our eyes. I looked away to glance
around the room, but there wasn't anything to focus on in the barren emptiness. I couldn't stare
at nothing for long without feeling rude; when I returned to meet his gaze, Mr. James quickly
looked away and perused his own office. My own eyes unconsciously darted away again when
his returned, and I found my gaze once more slipping over the featureless room. Chameleons,
with their independently telescoping eyes, must play this game at parties until they slowly drive
themselves mad. Or they could create a chain of eye contact, from one to another to another,
until the last locked eyes with the first in a convoluted continuum. Then they could send a
complicated series of winks around the circle in a variation of the game telephone. The good
players would challenge themselves by sending two different patterns at the same time, one in
each direction.
      The things that run through your head when you're supposed to be figuring out what to say.
      "Well," James said at last. "Maybe we should just go ahead and get out your schedule."
      "Sure." I fumbled through my backpack--which contained every piece of paper I'd garnered
so far at Oberlin, just in case--until I located the page which told me what particular bits of
learning and labor lay in store for me during the next three months.
      I said, "I'm taking an introductory Philosophy course, Philosophy and Values. And the intro
Physics course, the one for non-majors. There's a psychology course: the Introduction to Psych.
They gave me a math class, but I think I'm going to drop it. I really wanted to take Creative
Writing 101 so I could get into the writing program, but I realized later that they don't take first-
semester first-years. Since I didn't get in, they gave me something else. I think the Calculus class
was one of my last alternatives, maybe, because I wasn't sure what else to put down and it didn't
conflict with the times of any of the other classes. I'll take it later, maybe next semester. Right
now I'm thinking about taking an English course instead, to give me some good reading and
help take care of part of my writing requirement. Oh yeah! And I've been talking to the
newspaper staff and I'm going to do some writing for them. If I write enough stories I'll get a
credit from them, and ... and I guess that's it."
      "All right. It sounds like you've got a good course distribution there, son. As your advisor,
I'm supposed to make sure you're aware of the course distribution requirements. Every student
must take nine credit hours in each of the three categories: social sciences, hard sciences, and
humanities. You've already signed up for at least one in each category, so you're doing fine
      "Yep. That shouldn't be any problem at all. I'll probably have those finished by my third
semester. I like to stay well-rounded and make sure I have a good balance of things to work on."
      "I also need to inform you of our quantitative and writing proficiency requirements, though
it seems you're already familiar with them. During your stay here, you will need to take nine
credit hours of classes that give you quantitative proficiency credit, and nine hours of classes--in
at least two different fields of study--that are listed as writing intensive. Your physics course
will give you quantitative credit, and the philosophy class will meet part of your writing
requirement, as will the English class if you take it. You seem to be off to a good start."
      "Thanks. Yeah, I don't like to keep requirements like that hanging over my head. It should
be easy to meet them anyway, but it'll be nice to know they're taken care of." Don't end a
sentence with a preposition! This is a writer and an English scholar you're talking to. To which
you're talking? No, to whom you're talking. You should have said, um, it'll be nice to know of
care they're taken? No! Of taken they're care? Caring for them has been taken? The caring was
took? Damn it, you're babbling. Forget it!
      My internal turmoil apparently went unnoticed, or at least ignored. "Well, just let me sign
the papers and you should be set to go, son."
      Son ... grr. "Great!"
      I waited quietly while he looked everything over and added his H. John Hancock. Just grab
the papers and get out of here before it gets any worse, I thought. Grab and get. Grab and get.
Like a mantra, I repeated my plan.
      Then James stopped, and it all hit the fan. "Oh, yes. One more thing. You still have plenty
of time to decide, but do you have an intended major?"
      "I'm looking at a lot of things. So many classes sound fun. I'm considering chemistry or
maybe psychology--that's why I'm taking its intro class, though I couldn't fit in chemistry--but
there are a lot of subjects that I don't even know that much about yet. Anthropology, computer
science, religious studies. I'll have to take some classes and see. But probably more than
anything else I'd like to study creative writing."
      "Oh?" How can such a short word possibly be so ambiguous? Was he intrigued, skeptical,
      "Yeah. I wrote a column in high school for the paper and won a couple of awards. I really
enjoyed it, but I like making up my material more than I like researching it, so ... so I guess
creative writing makes more sense."
      "You are aware that all writing usually requires considerable research, including the
creative, fictional sort? Even for the wildest science fiction stories, realism frequently
necessitates studying up on any number of subjects."
      "Well, yeah. Sure. I mean, I know you have to know quite a bit, but I figure if I'm making
up the topics I'll enjoy learning about anything I need to know. So I think I'll be okay."
      "That's fine, son. I didn't want you to become too excited about the subject before you
understood how much work it can require. It's not all 'just making stuff up.'"
      Probably every student he'd talked to that day had expressed an interest in creative writing;
he was a famous author, after all, and writing was a common interest at Oberlin. Most likely
they all naively said they loved to make things up and thought writing was just plain fun and
games, or some brilliant mystical process, instead of hours of grueling, exacting work. I'm sure
he was just trying to brace me, to make sure I knew what I was getting into before all of us
kiddies with our heads in the clouds wandered out over the edge of a cliff. But all I heard was he
didn't think I knew anything about writing. It may have been a fairly accurate assessment, but it
still hurt. So I got argumentative.
      "Oh, I've been writing for as long as I could read. I'm even working on a book right now."
      "Yeah. I've already got about thirty pages written. And I've got several more chapters
sketched out in notes. It's based on a Dungeons and Dragons campaign my friends and I played
in high school. Well, it's sort of set in this world called Ravenloft that they've been writing a
series of books about, but I figure if the Forgotten Realms people don't want to publish it I can
always change it enough to get it published by someone else." I must have sounded like a fool of
the first degree. Correction: I was a fool of the first degree.
      "Thirty pages is a long way from published, son. It took me ten years and fifty stories
before my first short story was published. Another ten years and a dozen drafts passed before my
first novel saw the shelves of a store. It's hard as hell to get a book published. Even with a
reputation supporting me, my publishers have rejected more rough drafts than they have set to
     "Really? I knew it wasn't easy, but I figured the fantasy market wouldn't be as tough to get
into, being relatively new," I said.
     "I wouldn't rely on that. Even fluff has to be frighteningly well written. You have to manage
the details. Fantasy requires particular painstakingness because the readers won't be as familiar
with what you're describing. Inventing a character can take years of development; inventing a
world requires unbelievable persistence, as well as creativity. You have to have a mind like
God's." Fluff? And was he saying my work wouldn't be well-written, detailed, and thorough?
     James continued, "Tell me, what is your main character's name?"
     "Well, actually, there's a whole group of heroes."
     "Name one of them."
     "All right ... Dohnavan Cadmore. He's a paladin--a holy warrior."
     "What does he look like?"
     "Um. He's tall. Dark hair. Very muscular. Um. And he's got a flaming sword."
     "That's all?"
     "That's as much as I've figured out so far."
     "Go ahead and 'just make up' some more."
     "Well, he wears a suit of armor. And has a purple cloak. And of course he's got a large pack
to carry all his stuff."
     "Does it go on top of or underneath his cloak?"
     "So the pack isn't that large?"
     "Well, um, it has to carry most of his important belongings. So maybe it goes on top of his
cloak. Would that work?"
     H. Royden James said, "I don't know, Martin. That's not the point. He's your invention. I
was trying to show you that you need to know your characters thoroughly. What they look like,
what they wear, how they think, how they feel. And then you have to know how they interact
with each other or the world around them. But you also need to know how the world itself
     "Yeah, but I can always make it up as I go. I just need a little time to think about it."
     My advisor looked at me for a moment in silence. "The holy knight stood in readiness at the
crest of the hill, his hand resting lightly on the leather-wrapped pommel of his sword. His six-
foot, three-inch frame placed him nearly a head above his companions, who stood in a circle
with him, facing out in all directions. The knight was clad in armor heavily dented from scores
of battles, but the carefully polished surface still gleamed bronze and silver in the afternoon
sunlight. Hidden beneath layers of leather and metal, the frame that filled the armor bulged with
battle-hardened muscles of heroic proportions. A brisk breeze swirled the knight's cloak about
his shoulders, revealing the small pack which contained the few possessions he needed to
humbly serve his god. Faded though it was, the purple cloak signified that the knight followed
the Faith of the Sky, a sect common in the lands to the east but rare in these parts."
     I nodded. I'd gotten the point. But James kept going. "The visor of the man's helm was
raised so that he could see clearly into the distance. Inside the helm, strikingly compassionate
blue eyes squinted out with fierce concentration. Occasional hints of the man's raven hair
framed a face tanned by long exposure to the elements. A lone drop of sweat trickled from the
knight's brow. It ran down his fierce beaked nose and paused at a scar on his upper lip that was a
memento of some battle long past."
     James brought his narrative to a halt. "That's what creative writing classes should teach
     "Oh," I said. I just sat there, feeling my face grow warm. What a pitiful excuse for a writer I
must sound like. Young, inexperienced, terribly arrogant. In just moments my advisor had
brought more life to my story than any of my scribblings had managed in thirty pages. There
was so much I needed to learn, that was clear. And in the moment it seemed hopeless that I ever
would. If I had to go through more interactions like this one, I wasn't so sure I wanted to go
anywhere near the creative writing major. James, though formally an English professor, also
taught a few of the creative writing courses. Horrifying images flashed through my mind: sitting
through thirteen weeks of "son, your fluff is lacking in detail" and "this needs to be frightfully
well-written, son; right now, well, it's written simply frightful." Ugh.
     The professor handed me my papers. "Don't give up; there's a lot to learn, but that's why we
have a four-year program."
     Sure, sure, I thought. To drag out the humiliation for as long as possible, of course.
     "Well, I believe that's everything," James said. "Do you have any questions?"
     I shook my head. "No, I think I covered everything I needed."
     We shook hands, and I took my leave.

     Can you see now some of my frustrations with Oberlin? I return again to the idealism that
I'd expected from the school. Idealism was a large part of Oberlin's appeal. Outside of the
conservatory, which was world-class and drew students specifically for the quality of the
program, nearly everyone else came to Oberlin for the school's idealism. This is not to say the
other academic fields were sub-par; almost everything was excellent. But there are a lot of
excellent schools out there. After the academic quality, choosing a school mostly comes down to
     And Oberlin, I felt, broke character rather severely my freshman year. Just as you don't
expect mild-mannered, greying history professors to become professional wrestlers, it's also a
shock when a place that sells itself on idealism suddenly begins a series of crack-downs on
freedom, such as the four examples mentioned earlier. You feel betrayed; you have to wonder
what else have they sold you that isn't going to be delivered as promised?
     The school I was attending was not the same place I'd applied to; its tradition of freedom
was fading under a barrage of rulings and bans. For that year, if you compare the freedoms
granted against the new restrictions, freedom comes out way in the red.
     This stance opened the path of the kwyjibo to me. I was at Oberlin to learn, not only
through lectures but also by the example of the others around me. In a place aswarm with words,
these actions trumpeted their meaning. Oberlin was clearly out to cover its ass. Making money
was as important as educating students. Avoiding lawsuits was even more important. We were
their entire purpose for being, but they would readily take preemptive judicial action against us
to ensure no legal action was ever taken against them. Our happiness there, our education, and
the whole sum of the Oberlin experience consisted of what we could eke out from the system's
leavings. All the while it milked us for money and scrambled to protect itself from the litigious
gremlins which its legal counsel saw lurking in every shadow.
     Well here's a thought for you: What if this mindset represents a morally bankrupt and
criminally negligent way to run a college? Consider that claiming to be an institution of learning
when you're really focused on maintaining an endowment is a corrupt way to educate. Consider
that an organization whose apparent motto is, "Well, as long as we're not getting sued, maybe
somebody will glean a few bits of knowledge from the experience," commits the ultimate in
false advertising when it claims to be a college. The College does not have our best interests at
heart. The growth of our minds is clearly not the goal for which they stand. They want money
from students. And they fear anything which might take that money away. "Education" is just a
racket they're running. Sure, you'll get educated, as long as you pay up, shut up, and stay out of
the way while the moolah pours in. If a car company cuts costs and turns out an unsafe vehicle,
you can bet your sweet bippy they're going to be sued. Or if a chemicals company is found to
have sacrificed environmental safety for higher profit margins, they're going to face litigation.
And if a company promises education while in reality placing learning on the back burner in an
effort to garner more cash, well, that's criminally irresponsible, too.
      It sounded terrible when this first hit me. I was appalled, outraged at the College. But then
it gradually sank in that's just the way the world works. Making money is the top priority.
Avoiding losing money through lawsuits is part of that. Businesses that fail at rule number one
don't last very long. Everything else--whether it be a tasty product, a useful service, or a good
education--comes in as second priority. The customer can only be number one as long as you're
still in business. If the company goes under, that's the end of the product, no matter how terrific.
That's just how it is.
      You can't sue Oberlin for wanting to stay in business. They never claimed that they weren't
in it for the money. They never claimed that my freedom and my education took top billing over
the concerns that allow for their very existence. I'm just pissed off because I'd assumed they
would. Somehow I'd thought some schools would realize if education couldn't be done right, it
wasn't worth doing at all. And I'd figured that if there was any place that wonderful, Oberlin was
that place. Because so many of us wanted so desperately for Oberlin to be that place. But
wanting doesn't make it true.
      I took the lesson to heart. Make money. Don't get sued. It's not important if you don't do to
the best of your ability that which you set out to do, as long as you're still in the game at the end
of every pay period. Whatever your purpose for being, whatever the meaning of your life, it's
just a second-class consideration in comparison to pure survival. This went full in the face of the
beliefs I'd brought with me: that there were ideals greater than merely getting by, that there were
causes worth sacrificing for, that on occasion a principle could mean so much it was worth
dying for. But Oberlin's example set me straight. I mean, if even Oberlin does it, who am I to
deny the system?
      Who knows what kind of craziness I'd be up to if I hadn't learned so many valuable lessons.
As it is, I'm getting by. I offer my thanks to Oberlin, for showing me the way of the kwyjibo. I
embrace it wholeheartedly.
      Every now and again I catch myself feeling disillusioned, before I remember that I shouldn't
be; I'm just being practical. And of course Oberlin isn't going to hell. It's still alive, and you
don't go to heaven or hell until you're dead. So when I embrace the nickname Kwyjibo, I'm
choosing life. Despite the objections of my friends, I'm happy to go out and be a big, dumb,
balding North American ape. They tell me my life won't have the same spark, the same sense of
greatness through purpose. They're partly right, I suppose. The spark isn't there like it used to be.
But the purpose still is, actually much clearer than before: self-centered survival. It's a safer
choice, and more reliable.
     I can't wait to drive home, so that I can stay in the construction lane until the very last
moment to pass one more car. So what if ten of them behind me have to hit the brakes? That's
none of my concern. Did I walk through the Arch at graduation? You bet I did. Protesting the
Boxer Rebellion isn't my fight, and it was a damn poor exercise in survival in the first place.
Martyring yourself while trying to drive the colonialists out of China in the name of "freedom,"
what kind of survival is that? Yes, I'll sleep with a woman who's had a few drinks, and no, I
don't mind at all that I'll use "he" to generically mean both men and women. All that, and more.
Hell, after my conversations with H. Royden James (hemor-royden James, the pain-in-the-ass
advisor), I wouldn't even bother putting all of this to text, if I weren't so bored that distracting
myself has become critical to a form of survival. Seth took the TV with him when he left, you
see. I could read, I suppose, but honestly it feels good after four years of pressure to let all of this
out, worthless though it may be. That, too, is a means of survival.
     In the immortal words of Homer J. Simpson, "Yeah, it's a crummy system, but what are you
going to do?"
                             Chapter the Third: Expectations
      How else do I resemble my namesake, Homer Simpson? Well, my name is working its way
into the English vocabulary, just as Homer's has.
      Definition: to pull a Homer--to succeed despite idiocy.
      That's the honor Webster's will eventually attribute to the celluloid bonehead we all know
and love. It's probably not there yet (I'm too lazy to check my own aging furniture substitute),
but its future adoption into the language is a certainty. What other television program is more
quoted today? I've had entire conversations patched together from Simpsons quotes; no other
show has the ubiquity and variety to inspire such an act, nor the memorable one-liners.
      My own name travels a more circuitous and less certain path towards stardom. Whether the
"Martin step" will make it into the annals of etymology has yet to be seen. Presently its circle of
usage is limited to the handful and a half of my closest acquaintances who know the quirks of
my methods of sidewalk navigation.
      It's a tricky business, traversing by oneself the crowded walkways of a busy college and its
associated downtown district, although this is nothing new to anyone from a decent-sized urban
center. Companions only complicate the issue further. With two, if the route isn't clear and well-
rehearsed, a sinusoidal oscillation develops. One individual begins to drift, expecting the other
to follow. Usually both companions become aware of the lengthening gap at about the same
time. They simultaneously veer towards each other in order to correct the misunderstanding. But
now a collision is imminent, the ambulators careening towards each other with all the disaster
potential of a killer-comet movie. Usually the two swerve apart again, then back again, in a
series of gradually diminishing oscillations until a pattern is established and a direction chosen,
at least for the moment. The process is less than simple and not always without collision, though
somehow we usually manage. With more than two, side-by-side strolling is almost impossible.
Three rarely fit abreast on a sidewalk, so someone is almost always relegated to marching
through the grass or trailing behind. As for the oscillations generated by three people at an
uncertain turn, they're infinitely complex.
      In gravitational physics, the most fundamental question is the two body problem: In empty
space, given two bodies (planets, billiard balls, or anything else), their initial positions, and their
initial velocities, what will they do? The answer is usually easy to determine to ridiculous levels
of accuracy. In most cases the solution boils down to this: The two bodies fall towards each
other and collide, though on occasion they may disappear into the distance or even rotate about
each other. But whatever the outcome, simple equations can be solved and plotted to project the
movement of the bodies deep into the past and infinitely into the future. Just a few differential
equations, some boundary conditions, a little mathematical reduction, and viola! Under these
circumstances, even the most complex of patterns become understandable. Child's play,
      But add just one more billiard ball to the mix and you find yourself staring into the toothy
maw of the infamous three-body problem, which is in all but the most contrived situations
chaotic, unstable, and insoluble. We can predict the near future with relative accuracy,
interpolate backwards into the recent past, but our precision beyond these points degenerates
quickly. It isn't physically possible to know the details with enough accuracy to see far into the
future. Chaos requires that even the most infinitesimal shift in the present will lead to
dramatically different future outcomes. The same applies to our projections into the past. And
this is just for three floating hunks of lead. Consider our solar system, with nine planets, the sun,
several dozen moons, a swarm of comets and asteroids, and more space dust and solar particles
than can ever be kept track of. A single stray piece of rock now could eventually knock a planet
irretrievably loose from its orbit and send it spinning off into the void. Early astronomers, when
they realized that they couldn't precisely determine the paths of just five planets (the only ones
known at the time), became very worried that the Earth might one day wobble, tilt, and go
plummeting into the sun. Concerned governments offered a prize to anyone who could prove
that such a disaster wouldn't strike. The winning solution, in summary, suggested that, given the
length of time already involved, if it hasn't happened yet, it probably won't in the future.
      That answer still stands as the best assurance we have that nine planets and a sun won't
break and scatter like so many balls in a game of interstellar billiards. Start with that scenario,
throw in a few thousand more planets, give them all legs and brains, and you'll see the complete
chaos in action across the Oberlin campus. A glance to the left reveals Friend A, and the path
swerves in that direction. If the glinting sunflash off a frisbee calls attention to Friend B
lounging to the right, the path may lead that direction and settle to the ground for hours before
extending any further. Unpredictable, unstable, chaotic.
      Somehow, we all make it through, finding our ways to our respective destinations with a
minimum of unintended physical collisions. It's partly luck, partly persistence, and mostly due to
those few enlightened souls like me who actually pay attention to where they're going and get
out of everyone else's way. At 6'3" and 180 pounds, I'm far from invisible, but it's amazing the
number of five-foot weaklings who have driven me off the path just because I knew they didn't
see me coming. Nice, observant people like me are the grease that keeps the world going round.
If only we lived in the quarterstaff-toting days of Robin Hood and Little John, I swear there'd be
a lot fewer clueless short people around. I wonder sometimes about those other people out there
and how they get by. Do they just bounce off each other and keep moving? Is there an
evolutionary advantage in this case to being either short-and-light or well-padded? Or in the
case of a near-collision between two of the clueless masses, does one of them temporarily
convert to the role of "less clueless" and thus divert his path?
      On my more paranoid days, I'm half convinced that everyone knows to look out for others,
but for some reason they're secretly playing chicken with me, waiting to see which of us flinches
first. If that's true, so far I've never gotten anyone to admit to it.
      My friend Elana, she's 5'3" and maybe 110 pounds, maximum, and she never looks where
she's going, even though a full four-fifths of the world would flatten her on contact. She walks
backwards with impunity, heedless of potential objects behind her. In fact, she seems to prefer
to wander backwards, particularly when there are obstacles waiting out of her line of sight. It's
as if she's overly sensitive to the gravitational pull of human masses nearby. She infallibly times
her steps to coincide with the passing of some unsuspecting student in the mail room or dining
hall, blind to their shadows looming over her, deaf to the sound of their footsteps, insensible to
my eyes tracking their approach or my desperate signals that she should watch out. How can
anyone be so unaware? How can someone like that so consistently run into everything and still
somehow pass through life unscathed? How is it she so frequently collides with other people but
manages to never collide with traffic or the empty air beyond the edge of a cliff? I don't wish
this on my dear friend in the slightest, I only wonder at the selective lack of perception that she
and so many others exhibit. They don't pay attention, they see no obstacles, so they proceed as if
there are none. If it's me on the other end, I get out of the way, removing the obstacle. It's a
paradoxical self-fulfilling prophecy that I don't want to delve into any further, for fear that the
philosopher in me won't come up for breath for another three hours and fifteen pages, but-
     But I wonder sometimes if the lack of perception is almost intentional--by refusing to
recognize the obstacles, by expecting nothing to be there, is Elana trying to force her
expectations on reality? Is hers a mind in dangerous denial of reality, or is this a will so wrapped
up in itself it sees what it expects rather than what is? There's something odd about how much
stock people put into expectations, rather than what actually is. My observations on the matter
are these: Nine times out of ten, when Elana's expectations (or mine, for that matter) clash with
reality, there's a bruise or two afterwards that didn't exist beforehand.
     When you think about it, our addiction to expectations is really pretty astounding. We plan
things out, we live them, we find out just how wrong we were, and then, instead of learning
from this lesson in futility, we start from scratch with a new set of hopes, fresh and ripe, perfect
for dashing against the rocks of reality. I've seen friends in tears, not because something
particularly bad happened, but just because their expectations weren't met. And then I've
watched them dry their eyes, announce a new set of expectations, and from those beliefs
determine that everything is now okay. The entire emotional swing can occur completely
detached from any reality whatsoever. The very next day, they'll go through the exact same
thing. I swear, we're all desperate gamblers, deep in the hole and sure that our number is just
about to come up. Pick a horse, we tell ourselves, and if it doesn't come in then it just wasn't the
right horse; the game itself is never to be doubted. Gamble, lose. Gamble, lose. Lather, rinse,
     Please take, as a discourse on expectations and results, my personal experiences at Oberlin
College. Compare my hopes with my return on investment. Consider what I gambled on and
what I received as my share of the winnings.
     I expected diversity.
     Diversity I found, through people of all races, across the states, from many countries. I
spent a year in Spanish house, fleshing out my meager high school knowledge of the language
and the culture. I had friends from the distant lands of Russia, India, and Japan. I had a Latino
friend. I had a black friend. I had a gay friend, and a football team's worth of experimentals,
bisexuals, undecideds, and unknowns. Strangely, among the people I considered friends there
wasn't a single lesbian--a notable gap in the Oberlin multicultural bingo card. (Something they
really should sell at the Co-op, by the way.) In that den of fervent liberalism that occasionally
bordered on "frothing at the mouth, tree-hugging radicalism," I even had a Republican friend,
believe it or not. Diversity abounded.
     From diversity, I expected an open environment of freely and enthusiastically shared
knowledge--a veritable orgy of education.
     Mostly, I spent my time with straight white folks, moderate to raving liberals, primarily
upper-middle class. Most of them were economics majors--well, many of them were, including
Leon, Manny, Polly, Ginevra (with psychology), Thanh (with politics), and half a dozen cameo
friends. I majored in philosophy, but I can't spend more than a couple of hours around most of
the other majors. They're loose cannons in a serious conversation, bulls in the crystal shop of
clear and coherent dialogue. It took me years to identify a couple of philosophy majors who I
could be friends with: Dave, and to a lesser extent Marcus and Brandi. Economics majors I can
handle--they don't talk about their majors all that much, and when they do it's pertinent, concise,
and the bullshit is kept to a minimum.
     I should say that my close friends did actually teach me plenty--enough to write volumes.
But outside of those few individuals, Oberlin never felt very open. Interest groups never held out
their arms to me as an undecided outsider not already enmeshed in their culture. As a primarily
non-practicing Jew, for example, I never felt a strong pull that would have encouraged me to go
to services, visit the Kosher co-op, attend special events at J-house (Johnson house, the "Jewish-
themed dorm," for lack of a better expression), or otherwise investigate Jewish community
events. It wasn't just a religious phenomenon; the same held true for environmental activist
groups, political activist groups, and the myriad other clubs and organizations. It seemed like
every group was embroiled in some controversy, and everyone was too touchy, too sensitive, too
embittered or embattled for me to approach them with open curiosity. Maybe--thanks to the
spirit of political correctness--we all just feared we'd offend someone if we didn't already know
what we were talking about. Perhaps that self-damning uncertainty tainted the typical Obie's
opportunities to learn as much as it limited the dating scene. All I had to go by were letters to
the editor, campus postings in the mail room, and rumors in the dining halls. In my mind, most
signs pointed to "No!" Maybe I'm just not a joiner, it's hard to say.
     So mostly I kept to myself, to my friends. And no one, not even my friends, ever told me
over lunch something fascinating they'd just learned in class. But I suppose I never shared,
either. I had best throw no stones of judgement into that arena.
     All this negativity! Did we all learn to expect rejection so quickly that we began
automatically ruling ourselves out before we even asked? Or was the place perhaps a little less
open than it likes to make itself out to be? Consider this:
     Elana's high school friend Craig came out to visit her during our sophomore year. Craig
originally hailed from South Africa, some five or six years back. South Africa--just seeing that
name puts huge blips on my PC radar, though last I heard things were improving there. Craig
was a likable guy, funny, friendly, and bright, much like my other Obie friends. As a friend of a
friend, he received all benefits of the doubt regarding the issue of his origins. Ideally, he should
have received those same benefits even as a complete stranger. For all I know, he may have
been racist, apartheid-supporting, and a traditional South African colonialist to the core. But in
the time I knew him he gave no indications to suggest such beliefs.
     Two other friends of Elana, call them Shem and Shaun, also met Craig that evening. Later,
I ran across the two of them in the computer lab as I checked my email. Being friends of a friend
and casual acquaintances of mine in their own right, I greeted them.
     "Did you meet Abe?" Shem asked me.
     "You know, Abe-partheid."
     "Umm..." I said.
     "Joe," Shaun explained.
     "Yeah, Joe-hannesburg. The South African guy."
     They both laughed and wandered out the door, making increasingly tasteless jokes. So
much for tolerance. So much for enlightenment. I think I was particularly shocked because I
knew the two men were very active in the Jewish community. As often as we're confronted by
the travesty of the Holocaust, I like to hope that Jews would be among the last to hold against a
man the qualities he acquired at birth. If any good is ever to come from that dark event, it can
only be through the understanding that one's heritage does not make one inherently criminal.
And of all people to learn that lesson, I would have hoped with the depth of my soul that the
persecuted would be the first to embrace it in all its implications. If those who were unjustly
mistreated can't comprehend that lesson, what hope is there for those who went untouched?
      Years later I'm still pissed at those two. I now wish desperately that I'd grabbed them by the
ears and given them a good yelling-at. Instead, I've tried to teach them a lesson by avoiding them
at all costs.
      Naturally, these two jerks aren't meant to reflect on the entire Jewish community at Oberlin.
Two particularly bad apples don't mean the whole orchard's worthless. Manny, a couple of
months ago, told me those same bigots invited him to indulge in some heroin abuse with them if
he so desired. He passed on the opportunity, but it seems those two were fucked up in more
ways than one. All the same, Oberlin was rife with intolerance, even if it was primarily the
quasi-intellectual intolerance of intolerance itself.
      [Footnote: It's nearly impossible to criticize a person without hypocritically bringing out
that very same quality in oneself. Naturally, in this case, I am exhibiting intolerance myself on
several levels here: 1) I am not allowing the young men to express their dislike of another
individual, when certainly it's not required that they like or even be nice to the guy. 2) I am not
allowing the men to show disapproval for a country with a shaky human-rights record, whereas
there have probably been a million man-hours spent at Oberlin alone focused on straightening
out said country. 3) I am assuming that heroin is a Bad Thing, without having ever tried or even
seen the substance. All I know about it comes from TV, movies, government propaganda, and
whispered rumors about a couple of Obies and their habits. 4) I am assuming that because
heroin is a Bad Thing, the people who take it are Bad People. 5) All this is coming from a man
who, in these pages, drinks to excess, smokes pot, takes acid, and feels no shame about any of
said activities. How do I know where to draw the line? Why are my drugs acceptable and the
others not? Arbitrary personal choice. All the same, I stand by all five hypocrisies. It doesn't
make them right, but I get some points for introspective honesty, don't I?]
      Expectation: I would receive a good, well-rounded education.
      I wouldn't have done any better anywhere else.
      Thirty hours of philosophy classes took care of the minimum requirements for my major,
leaving another eighty-two hours to distribute among a smorgasbord of Oberlin's liberal arts
offerings. It wasn't nearly enough, and it was far too much. At some point introductory courses
began to blur together, following the same predictable formulae, just with new names and faces.
I suppose this means I've actually learned how to learn--a concept that could be one of the
biggest pile of liberal arts manure, except that it happens to be true. And it's a good thing, too, as
I can't stand the thought of taking another class right now. No more papers, no more problem
sets, no more labs--there's no better news than that. Books I can handle. Lectures I could
probably deal with, but please, God, no more assignments!
      As for honors, most likely that will turn out to the most educational experience of all, as are
all MEEBs--Miserable Experiences that End Badly.
      Expectation: After college, I would go on to get a graduate degree.
      There is nothing I would like less at this moment than more formal education. I've heard
stories, and not a one was pleasant. Not a single ray of hope has escaped the lips of any of my
graduate friends. It's all horror stories, and who wants that? It's hellish work, and you can't even
change the subject now and again because variety is not the point of grad school. Honors again,
but for five years instead of one? Thank you, no.
     Expectation: I would leave Oberlin with a definite plan for my career.
     Negatory. Oh, I've narrowed down the prospects, ruled out a few areas, but I have even less
of an idea now about what I'd like to do than when I started. Without higher education I can't
teach, something that's never called to me anyway. With a degree in philosophy my
qualifications for anything specific are minimal, unless it's writing 10-page papers. As far as I
know, there's no such thing as a "professional philosopher." Either you get a Ph.D and become a
professor somewhere and then "do philosophy" on the side, or you exercise your philosophical
muscles though other channels: politics, journalism, creative writing, or most likely via letters to
the editor of some obscure publication that prints all submissions, no matter how loony. At this
point I could still follow nearly any career path. It's not too late for anything.
     In high school, during the college selection process, I flipped through a career guide and
made a list of all the majors that interested me. I came up with thirty-five. Eventually I narrowed
it down to twenty that looked really cool. Almost all of them are really cool. And I've since
discovered many more that I never even considered that day. Art history, for one; computer
science, for another. Fascinating subjects, yes, but still not really interesting enough to wake up
for every morning, not exciting enough to keep me from wishing I were at quarter beers instead
of a study session, not gripping enough to keep my mind from wandering in class. They're all
great in theory, but in practice none of them could hold a candle to a rousing hour of Mario
Kart. It's a shame, that.
     So let me do the bare minimum. Just give me a nice office job. Something where I clock in
at nine and back out at five-thirty, with half an hour for lunch. Something where someone tells
me what to do, and I do it, and then I wait around playing solitaire on my computer until the
next assignment. Give me a water cooler to gossip around, guys to compare sports stats with,
gals to flirt with, and a regular paycheck. Let it be filled with profits leeched from mother earth
and yanked from the grasp of the common man, if that's what it takes to earn a large salary.
Earnings garnered through chemical perversion, nuclear mutant experimental biological life-
threatening child-labor warfare development is fine. They can take my responsibility; they can
have my morality. Just keep the fat paychecks coming in and automaton Martin will work eight
diligent hours a day, and then go home to his beer and his DVD player and his video games and
his prime-time TV, until his six-hour allotment of "life" for that day has been used up and it's
time to go to sleep. That's really fine. That sounds great. Just get me out of here and I don't care
about the details. I can't wait for Thursday night bowling leagues. I look forward to shouting
"TGIF!" to my co-workers before the weekend and muttering "Monday again?" three days later.
I don't just want that life, I lust for it--for our Great American Reality.
     [Footnote: Not to be confused with the American Dream, which is not only something
entirely different, but also mythical. Either that or the American Dream burned down in 1968, if
you trust Raoul Duke. Same difference, I suppose.]
     Expectation: College would provide me with more answers than questions.
     Day one of classes, Friday September 3, 1993. Nine o'clock introductory philosophy with
Calvin Hertz. He spent the first half hour with roll call, syllabi, and trying to weed out the
uncertain from the devoted in the overcrowded room. And then there was Descartes and a
devilish little question, and in ten minutes a few simple words with the power of a planetary
wrecking ball obliterated the world before my eyes. It took us two painful weeks to rebuild to
the point that I was confident only of my own existence.
      Then and there I knew I had to continue with philosophy, if only to try to pull the rest of my
world back together. But the more I studied, the more I lost. Philosophy of the Mind rid us of
free will with the utmost dispatch, and before I could lock the doors of my understanding it
evicted God as well. The suddenly empty house of my soul was left with only the faintest
lingering whiff of some shriveled and doddering quasi-being that might dwell there on occasion.
Stale air for the heart, the vapors of a discarded liniment tube are all that's left to soothe my
ailing spirit.
      Symbolic Logic got me from A to B and back again with mechanical precision, but both A
and B were merely empty letters, and we had to be given both of them for the logic to work.
Nietzsche denounced anything but the self and one's will. And then for good measure a number
of philosophers denounced Nietzsche, too. Philosophy of Morals created nothing but a staging
ground to battle over the same old arguments, just with less name-calling and more footnotes. In
the end, each argument hinged upon an indefensible assumption about the way the world was or
should be. Given an assumption A, we worked our way to its eventual conclusions. Or more
often, given A we then identified the illogical conclusions that authors derived from A. Given B
or C, we would do the same. But why A? Why B or C? Why not D, R, E, or W? Are any of
them true? We don't know and we can't find out. You can't prove an assumption. They float on
empty air, blueprints for intricate brick castles mapped out to the centimeter, and the whole
thing a mile high and plummeting. To be demolished with the speed of a simple "but that's not
      It's fascinating stuff, but you can't get anywhere that you aren't to begin with, and the person
next to you will always have a map that says you're somewhere else far away.
      I have no more answers, no fewer questions. I just learned to stop asking anything I didn't
want answered. Question God, and God disappears. Question reality, and you're left with a mind
that just might not have a shred of "reality" to wrap around it. What about love? All we've got
are chemical impulses and electrical currents, coupled with behavior so strange if it wasn't
"normal" we'd all be locked up. And happiness? Think about it too long, and all you'll get for
your troubles is a furrowed brow. Question the meaning of it all, and there's no reason for
anything except "because," and what reason is that for anything? So you learn not to ask, not to
press things you're happy with and don't want shattered. If it ain't broke, it will be the second
you take it apart. Dig a hole and there's never enough dirt to fill it back up again. We live in a
world where you can't put things back together. Things are more than the sum of their parts; but
if you disassemble them, they're just parts. You can't get the whole back again.
      Dark as it is, I suppose I'm better for all this musing. Given the opportunity to go back and
save myself from all the pain of discovery, I'd still choose the path I've walked. Without my
current knowledge my younger self could never have been dissuaded from probing into these
dark recesses until he found what I now know. This disappointment was unavoidable, delay
could have made the let-down worse. Leave it as it is.
      Just look at Mr. Hertz. Rumors circulated that he had a nervous breakdown sometime my
junior year, though whether it's true or not I can't say. I know for a fact the good professor was
around to sit in on my honors oral exam senior year. But there's a part of me that supposes the
rumors were a possibility. I remember Mr. Hertz cautioned us on a couple of occasions about
thoughts that could stretch and wound our minds, so he must have been familiar with the
territory. One lesson is particularly vivid--one of his philosophical asides. He would often pause
in the midst of the day's lecture, take a deep breath, and then dive off into the deep and cooling
waters of some philosophical tangent that clearly came from the heart. On that day he stood
behind the table, one leg on the floor, the other perched atop it. He leaned forward with the
intensity of his thoughts, rested his forearms against his upraised knee and looked at us through
his thick, squarish glasses. And the truth poured out. I wish I had recorded for posterity that and
every other moment of inspired lecturing. But when one of those monologues took him, every
pen in the room dropped so we could soak in each word, every nuance of his meaning. So many
of those moments have faded now. The answers to life's mysteries have slipped through my
grasp, though I can still remember the topics: what it means to be a friend, what it is to be
human, how to save the world for our children.
     On this particular day, Mr. Hertz warned us that certain philosophical arguments could lead
us to the conclusion that the person we were a few seconds ago is not the same person we are
now. "Don't even try to believe this," he cautioned. "People who believe they aren't the same
person from moment to moment go insane."
     This of course made me perversely curious about trying to adopt that mindset, just to see
what it would do to me. [Footnote: Of course, I'd never know, because I'd be gone before I could
find out.] Thankfully, this urge quickly faded. But I've always wondered if perhaps it was this
thought that pushed Mr. Hertz over the edge. Had he failed to heed his own advice? If the
breakdown even happened, I'm sure it was caused by something else entirely, but for some
reason I can't shake my curious suspicion.
     That's the only answer I found in college: Don't question things you shouldn't, just let them
be. We all chase our roadrunners off the cliff, but like the coyote we only fall when we stop to
look down. So keep your head up, keep your eyes firmly straight ahead, keep your spirits high,
and it's all okay. Let there be a God who cares. Let there be meaning in what you do. Let there
be joy where you find it. Let yourself experience love.
     Expectation: The most attractive woman on campus would live in the room next to
mine. She would be brilliant, hilarious, witty, wacky, sexy, lovable, and damn near perfect.
     You've already met Ginevra. She was all that and more.
     She also had a boyfriend.
     Expectation: I would leave college engaged and soon to be married.
     Marriage doesn't appear imminent. It may work that way at other places, but definitely not
at Oberlin. I know of only one person who was engaged when she graduated, and she wasn't
even dating another Obie.
     I expected college to provide social opportunities: card games, drinking, and perhaps
     Occasionally even the worst of frauds and scoundrels makes a lucky guess.
     I think I was surprised to find that meals were one of the most valuable social times. After
becoming accustomed to eating hurried meals between extracurricular activities or on my own
in the evenings during my last years of high school, it was a pleasant surprise to find myself
enjoying lengthy conversations with friends during meal times, even if those conversations were
occasionally a bit off the wall.
     "Does anybody know, why do the drinks with the most caffeine have such unassuming
names?" Dave asked us sometime in the fall of our junior year. Kim, Elana, and I were seated in
the snack bar and sipping one or the other of the yellow drinks--I can never keep Mountain Dew
and Mello Yello straight, so I have no idea which one. "It doesn't make any sense. They're
supposed to pep you up, but their names act like they'll calm you down. It's like coming out with
a brand of coffee called 'Goodnight.' Or naming toothpaste 'Fishbreath.'" His outrage was
apparent and quickly getting out of control. It had all started with a rehashing of the classic
Oberlin controversy over whether carbonated beverages should be called "pop" or "soda."
Generally, those from the coasts preferred the latter, while those from the Midwest preferred the
former. But there was always some smartass who would throw in a quirky alternative, such as
"cold and refreshing sparkling beverage." Despite the general unpopularity of such suggestions,
I usually supported the upstart terms. Of course, I was usually the one making those suggestions
in the first place.
     "You're right," I said to mollify Dave. "It doesn't make any sense."
     He continued, "What we should do is, we should make another yellow drink, triple the
caffeine dose, and then combine the two names. We'll call it Mellow Dew, and it'll sell like
     "That's a great idea," I said. "Or what if we go with the other two halves of their names?
We'd get Mountain Yellow!"
     My friends pondered the suggestion for a moment before answering without the enthusiasm
for which I'd hoped.
     "Ew," said Kim.
     The silent Elana would make a face.
     Dave shook his head. "No one would ever buy that. It sounds like bear piss."
     Expectation: Euchre would be the card game of choice.
     Euchre is a traditionally Midwestern game, seldom known outside the nation's corn belt.
My grandparents hail from Ohio, thus my family plays Euchre, even in the distant land of
Florida. But at Oberlin only a very few knew the game of the Gods, and by some universal
decree no more than three such individuals could gather in the same room at the same time.
Spades seemed to be the popular alternative, so (complaining vociferously) I took up the game
and eventually learned to enjoy the intricacy of playing. Once, late into my senior year, I had the
opportunity to sit down with three other Euchre players in the 'Sco on a quiet night and deal out
a hand. But by then the simple and quick-playing Euchre had lost much of its charm, and after a
couple of hands I perversely suggested we switch to spades.
     Expectation: Whatever drugs I tried during my time at Oberlin, cigarettes would not
be among the mix.
     I am the only person I know who deliberately set out to acquire a smoking addiction, but
half a pack and two days' trying reduced me to a hacking, sneezing cesspool of germs and
mucus. I quickly came to my senses and abandoned my newest hobby, relegating my smoking
habit to the more healthy "occasional use."
     To back up for a moment, during high school I was an ardent (read rabid) abstinent of all
questionable substances. They were illegal, clearly not in any way good for me, and most of
them seemed to require bad tasting liquids, nasty smoke, or sticking needles and worse into my
arms and worse. I didn't understand what could possibly be appealing about any of these things.
My mind may be changed now, but in all honesty I don't think poorly of my youthful naivete, if
for no other reason than it kept me out of trouble.
     Historically and culturally speaking, purity is an obsession. Purity is clear, purity is clean-
cut. It's a simple guideline to follow. It's easier than drawing a line anywhere else--if there's
going to be a stopping point, there's none easier than stopping before you start. [Footnote: This
is the infamous "slippery-slope" concept. It's used as justification for all-or-nothing arguments,
usually when there's a spectrum of beliefs along a line between two diametrically opposed
positions. Invoking the slippery slope clause postulates that if you budge in the slightest from
the absolute strictest position on one side of the argument, then you'll end up committing
yourself to the other absolute ideal. It's like the government's argument that occasional
marijuana use leads to hard drug use, which leads to an eventual drug-addled shooting spree that
leaves fifteen dead. Our government tells us this, so it must be true. The slippery slope says if
you allow anyone to have abortions, everyone will get an abortion. It says if we allow assisted
suicide under any circumstances then everyone will end up dead. The slippery slope argument is
the death of compromise. And compromise is essential to politics. Thus, philosophers make the
worst politicians. Never vote for a philosopher.] There may be a time and a place for zero
tolerance, for absolute adherence to some principle, but more often than not an obsession with
the strictest of guidelines causes more trouble than it's worth. Humans are not robots, nor are we
meant to be. All the same, up through high school I did a pretty good job of trying to act like
     Before college, I was in all ways a virgin, and though I knew that status would change over
time, there was a part of me that took pride and comfort in my purity. That part wished to hold
tight to my innocence, perhaps out of fear, or pride, or some glimmering hint of nostalgia and
potential regret I might feel in later days. I hate to open presents, too--hate to know that all the
magical potential is about to be lost, mystery traded in for some mundane object, so-
     So it was with the ponderousness of my past weighing on my heart that I stood with Leon
and Manny in the darkness of the stadium bleachers late one October night. I contemplated the
cigar held in my chilled grasp. My companions conversed animatedly beside me, the breath
steaming from their mouths a prophecy of impending smoke. The permanence of what I was
about to do swam though my consciousness. Momentous, this anticipated act of de-purification.
There was no reclaiming my innocence. Somehow, I felt that I could not pass though that
moment unchanged, might awake the next morning to find myself not the person I was the day
before. It was the insanity that Mr. Hertz had warned us about, but I couldn't shake the belief.
     I raised the cigar to my lips and allowed its milky-white smoke to fill my mouth. In my eyes
I was violated as surely as if that cigar had been a penis penetrating any orifice of a virginal
     It all seems melodramatic now, but what's one more puff off a cigarette when several packs
have filled your lungs? When ten sets of lips have pressed against yours, what barrier is
shattered if another pair do the same? Compared to the act of smoking that first cigar, losing my
virginity (in the standard sense) a couple of months later was more a matter of fact than a matter
of crisis. Like any relationship at Oberlin, it carried loads of angst and tension. Neither Shana
nor I dealt with it well, and after a few nights of intimacy we suddenly realized it was too much
too fast, and we couldn't look each other in the eye anymore. Frustratingly, I still run into her
around campus fairly often. Even now we're too embarrassed not to greet each other, but we
haven't said anything deeper than "hi" and "how are you" in three and a half years. All that aside,
on the first night that we hooked up purity was the last of my worries.
     In meager defense of my intentionally taking up smoking, it was in the spring semester of
my sophomore year, right after a particularly frustrating incident with Ginevra, when I was in
the midst of the experience known as the sophomore slump. Unsure of my major, overloaded
with too many classes, stir-crazy after a long winter, tired, lonely, and angry without something
or someone to vent my anger upon, I inflicted insanity upon myself to better blend in with the
insane world surrounding me.
     The sane individual, by contrast, sinks slowly and unwillingly into the tar pit of addiction,
blindly following the footsteps of his comrades ahead of him, searching for who knows what in
the dark and viscous depths, until one day he realizes he's mired fast and unable to escape.
Never again will I wonder about those sabertooth tigers of antiquity who so clumsily allowed
themselves to fall into the ancient pools of pitch, so that they've been preserved through the
aeons for archaeologists to dig up and put on display. Supposedly intelligent humans fall blindly
into less-subtle traps to this day. Take one Manuel Cortiz as an example:
     "Hey, Leon, can I bum a cigarette?"
     "Are you really going to smoke this one?"
     "Yeah," Manny said. He passed the bong to the right, to Ginevra, who was seated next to
him on the bed. Leon, from the overstuffed and pilfered lounge chair across from the bed, tossed
a Marlboro to Manuel, who missed the projectile and then lost it in the sheets of the bed. He
stood up and shooed everyone else up while he searched, temporarily discomfiting Ginevra and
Seth, the other resident of the bed (who was sitting to Manuel's left). From the floor next to
Seth, reclining against the wallpapered and whitewashed dorm wall, I chuckled at Manny's
antics. Across from me, straddling a backwards dorm-issue desk chair, Thanh laughed in
     This was my circle of friends during my first two years. They were the people with whom I
ate, hung out, went to movies, went to parties, did drugs, and just about everything else. There
were a few outliers, a number of acquaintances. I was casual friends with many of my neighbors
in the dorms. Frequently I studied for tests with other classmates. And though I couldn't put up
with most philosophy majors, there was one guy, David Crope, who was good conversation. He
ended up in almost all of my philosophy classes, so we often talked before and after lectures.
Dave and I didn't do much socially the first couple of years, but we became good friends as
     But mostly it was Ginevra, Leon, Manny, Seth, and Thanh. Ginevra was the oldest and
served as a source of information and experience. Around us five younger guys she sometimes
came across as motherly, though if any of us ever suggested it her rebuttal always involved a
swift and accurately hurled airborne denial. Leon was our visionary, the dreamer of plans, the
idea man. Most evenings, it was Leon who came up with the course of action. The rest of us
maintained veto power; if he started to get a little too innovative, we'd bring him back in line,
but most of the time we just let him lead the way. Seth was the experimenter. The man who
would execute Leon's plans if they ever took any special doing. He was a conversational
whirlwind, and easily drawn in by new concepts. Manny provided comic relief--sometimes
intentional, sometimes unintentional. The man had an uncanny knack for witnessing unusual
events, and he often regaled us with his stories. But in between the comic moments, there was
something mysteriously heroic about Mr. Cortiz.
     What was my part in all this? I may get some credit for bringing everyone together, and I
normally think of myself as being at the center of the gatherings, but that's probably mostly just
psychological self-centeredness. I guess, more than anything, I was the observer. Not that I
didn't participate, but I tended to be fairly quiet. The guy who sat back and watched the show
that everyone else put on. The appreciative audience.
      Thanh was an intermittent member of our gatherings, a comet drifting on his own elliptical
path, passing occasionally through the five-tiered orbit that was our normal circle. Leon and
Thanh were roommates, miraculously placed together in a rare flash of insight by the same
mechanism of insanity that had predicted Ixthyaki and I were well-matched. Thanh was always a
welcome addition to our community, despite the fact that I occasionally found him a little
unnerving. In part, it was the shaved head. Any time I see a man of eastern Asian origins with a
shaved head, I can't help but think of Buddhist monks. And when you see someone who looks
like he should be a monk doing very un-monklike things, the disparity can be unnerving. But not
uninteresting. Decked out in blue jeans, tie-dyed shirt, and a nose ring, wielding a bong like a
conductor's baton, with a "let's go steal a campus Daihatsu and park it on top of the library"
gleam in his eye, that was him at his best. [Footnote: The Daihatsus were miniature flatbed
trucks which the grounds crew used as transportation. They were often seen sitting unattended
in strange locations at stranger hours. Finagling one of the trucks onto the top of our five-story
library was one of my great dreams, second only to the one where I scooped up Ginevra, threw
her into the passenger seat, and drove off into the sunset while a handful of "little people" stood
by and cheered us on.]
      We were in Leon's room that day as I watched Manny drive himself to addiction. Ignoring
Leon's protests, he dumped the pillows on the floor and finally tore the sheets off the bed before
locating the donated cigarette, slightly bent but still smokable. He popped it in his mouth,
paused, looked around again. "Where's the lighter?" he mumbled around a mouthful of filter.
      "You put it in your pocket," I told him.
      Manny patted himself down and pulled the lighter from the pocket where he'd put it while
he was searching for the cigarette. "Oh yeah," he said. Ten seconds of fumbling with the child
protection mechanism (a.k.a. stoner proofing) got the cigarette lit properly, and everyone could
return to their places on the bed with grateful sighs. Amusement still sparkled in Thanh's eyes.
Leon was muttering to himself, vaguely in synch with the booming lyrics of Stevie Wonder,
while he doodled on a napkin. It was covered with spirals, zig-zags, jots, dots, and zots in an
intricate, writhingly organic mesh of ink. It was the Pattern. During an intense trip the week
before, the Pattern had been revealed to Leon, and he'd been trying to document it ever since. At
the time, I thought it was just an excuse to smoke like a fiend and try to see things. I hadn't seen
the Pattern myself and wasn't entirely sure it existed outside of Leon's hallucinations. But my
zany friend continued to obsessively trace out shapes on the napkin with the fervor of the newly
converted. His eyes glowed red from a heavy dose of pot, worsened by his unwillingness to
blink and risk losing his visions. His mouth hung open, saliva glistening at the corner, while his
entire body listed thirty degrees to starboard. If he didn't return to our universe soon, he'd be on
the floor or tracing a Pattern with his own drool.
      "Oh, crap!" Leon suddenly shouted, wadding the napkin in frustration. "The ink keeps
spreading too much."
      "Why don't you use a normal piece of paper?" Seth asked. Seth was always probing,
questioning, skeptical, searching for solutions. He was also fascinated by the concept of the
Pattern, though he had yet to see it. He encouraged Leon, prodded him for details, hungered for
each new description as a disciple hungers for the next revelation from the master. Maybe he
was searching for a sense of unity, maybe he just thought it was really cool. Either way, Seth
pressed our visionary relentlessly with every idea that crossed his mind.
      Leon shook his head, long red hair flopping into his face. "I can't. I need the texture to see
the Pattern. It doesn't show up on a smooth surface."
      "Have you tried recycled paper? Would that have enough texture?"
      "I don't know. It might work. But I don't have any recycled paper here."
      "Or what about construction paper? Or you could get some of that heavy stuff they use for
resumes and invitations."
      The two may have continued their discussion about the merits of various types of paper, but
a sudden look of distress on Ginevra's face riveted my attention to her. "What happened to the
lighter?" she asked, bong hanging uselessly in her hands.
      No one else seemed to remember that Manuel had returned the device to his pocket as soon
as he'd lit his cigarette, Manny included.
      "I've got one," I said, volunteering the lighter from my own pocket. If it had been anyone
else, I would have pointed out the memory lapse, but for Ginevra only the lighter from my
fingertips to hers was good enough. I carry a source of fire at all times, specifically for such
situations--a lecherous modern Prometheus. It came from the Cleveland art museum gift shop.
It's one of those large lighters that promises ten thousand lights or something absurd like that,
and it's decorated with a work of modern art. Yep, a Dalí.
      I passed the lighter to Ginevra, uttering the motto, "Always come prepared."
      Silence held for a moment as we all watched Ginevra inhale a volume of smoke that would
make most lesser mortals crosseyed.
      "That's what the condom ad said," Seth suddenly quipped over the sound of percolating
smoke. Ginevra choked dragonbreath laughter. It quickly turned into the typical dry cough that
comes from burning one's lungs with hot fumes. Red-faced and wheezing, she sent the bong
along its clockwise path to Thanh.
      Manny suddenly stubbed out his half-smoked cigarette in the communal ash tray, which sat
in the midst of us like a crystal ball at the center of a psychic's table. We could scry our futures
there, if we looked closely. The pollution of body and mind, the eventual, inevitable death:
sometimes burning long with life beforehand and other times snuffed out prematurely. Watching
what we cherish disappear in a puff of smoke, sifting through the ashen remains. If it had been
recently emptied, it was just possible to detect through the caked-on grime the logo of Anheuser
Busch. A symbol of quantity over quality, image over content, confusion over sense, corporate
America in all its glory lurking behind it all. How horrible, to gather 'round that filthy aluminum
tray, to focus our energies upon it and revere it as we did. Imagine a crowd circling close around
a half-full garbage can, lounging conversationally while poking at rotting vegetables, mucus-
soaked kleenex, the rinds of old melons, coffee grounds, and stale beer cans. Stick your hand in
it, spill it on the floor, wipe it up again and again. Lug it around the room with you so it's always
within easy reach. Put it on your desk, perch it on your bed, set it on the dinner table, pass it
around to your friends. Hang food on its rim when you're busy, pick it up and finish it when
your hands are free again.
      The similarities are striking. Most telling of all is the truth unveiled when you say "trash" in
pig latin: it's "ash-tray." They're practically one and the same. There's only one difference
between an ash tray and a garbage can. I've taken things out of the garbage before, but I'll never
touch anything that's been in an ash tray.
      "What are you doing?" Seth asked Manny as he pounded his unfinished cigarette into
      "I don't want to smoke this," Manny said.
      Leon looked up at him from another napkin. "Why'd you ask me for it, then?"
      "Well, I thought I wanted one, but then I thought about it a little more and it scared me. I
don't want to get hooked, man."
      "You don't even smoke the cigarettes I give you. How are you going to get hooked when
you don't smoke?"
      I added my own to bits of observation: "So you won't smoke when you want a cigarette, but
it's okay to have one when you don't want it? That's pretty screwy. I mean, I like it, but it's still
screwy. Maybe there's a story there. Hooked in Spite of Yourself or Defeating Addiction Though
Perversity. It could work."
      Manny gave me a long, silent look. "I don't know, man," he concluded. "I just don't want to
get hooked."
      Always logical, Seth suggested that he just not smoke.
      "Yeah, you're right. I've gotta stop."
      "Great," Leon said. "Thanh, are you going to smoke that bowl or hang it in a museum?"
Normally that wouldn't pass for proper etiquette, but the roommates were very casual about
bong propriety. And that particular evening Leon was the only one of us providing refreshments,
so it was certainly his prerogative.
      "Smoking, smoking. Keep your pants on. I just have to say ..." His voice echoed hollowly
as he put his lips to the plastic tube and paused to take an enormous hit. When he spoke again,
his voice rolled out deep and thick around a cloud dense and large enough I half expected
Amelia Earhart to fly out of it. "I just have to say I'll bet any of you five dollars that Manny
smokes a pack a day by the end of the year."
      The room grew silent, thoughtful. Even Stevie Wonder faded to silence between tracks,
unwilling to bet against the shaven-headed man.
      "Hey, that's not funny!" Manny protested. "You're on, man. I'm not going to start smoking."
      "You already are."
      "Just now and again, that doesn't count. I've only had two this week."
      "Half a pack a day by finals this spring, that's what the five dollars in my pocket tells me.
Are you going to argue with that?" He held out his hand, challenging Manny to back down and
meekly accept the inevitable.
      But Manuel met Thanh's grasp firmly. "I'm not gonna get hooked. I won't smoke half a pack
between now and next spring." He returned to his seat on the mattress with a defiant thump,
shaking Ginevra and sending her tilting into his shoulder. Oh, how I envied that shoulder its
brush with greatness, how I pitied its Percival-like innocence in not recognizing the grail when it
was offered.
      During my years at Oberlin, my feelings for Ginevra traced out a long and convoluted path.
The attraction was there instantaneously, from that first day when I collided with her in the hall.
But she was just one new face among three thousand other faces, many of whom were also
attractive, intriguing, and, more importantly, available. Most of my freshman year I harbored a
mild crush that stayed primarily in the background, as sort of a wistful hope that if she ever
broke up with Brent I might take his place. In the meantime there were any number of other
women who I flirted ineffectively with, or more often thought about flirting with but didn't
quite. I'm shy and Oberlin is a place of subtle, tenuous moves. There were the few nights with
Shana, and I spent most of spring semester dreaming about a woman in my Physics 103 class.
She was a senior and I was a freshman, and though we talked a bit I never could bring myself to
ask her out. Things got worse sophomore year, when I started spending a lot of time with
Ginevra. By the end of the fall semester, during the time of this story about Manny and his
smoking, I knew I was in love with her. Hence, back in Leon's room, I was enthralled by the
collision between Ginevra's shoulder and Manny's.
       Thanh passed the bong to Leon, who had put down his drawings of the Pattern. The bong
was one of Leon's creations, a marvelous feat of engineering, the eighth wonder of the world.
Nearly three feet long, seven chambers large, all neon yellow plastic and sleek chrome fittings.
Airtight seals, slides, vents, and tubes swarmed the surface. The Pan Pipe required the complete
attention of two hands to use and a master's degree to operate proficiently. It was shaped
vaguely like the musical instrument pan pipe, though viewed from the top this device could be
seen to curl in a semicircle. Four wide tubes, incrementally shorter as they progressed
counterclockwise, contained the seven chambers, two apiece in the first three tubes and one in
the final and shortest tube. The larger cylinders were connected by three narrower cylinders that
provided for airflow from one chamber to the next. Each chamber could be filled with water and
emptied without disturbing the others, and the entire ensemble could be disassembled for easy
cleaning. To complicate matters, each chamber had a different mechanism for venting: slides,
stoppers, pull tabs, levers, and one old-fashioned hole that had to be judiciously covered and
uncovered with a thumb or an entire lungful could be lost. When we protested this diversity of
Leon's vision, he responded with an enthusiastic "It's just more fun this way, isn't it?" and
refused to say more on the matter. He also flatly refused to use any other device to smoke pot.
To properly operate the mechanism, your hands were supposed to wield fire, remove the slide,
and then work their way from chamber to chamber, filling and venting each, slowly rotating the
entire ensemble to bring the next set of switches into view, all the while continually inhaling
from the end. The bowl was an industrial-sized bolt that fit around my thumb with room to
spare. It could hold enough weed to give a whale the munchies.
       The entire thing spelled danger, and for the first few months of use most of us were wary of
it. It was easy to get confused using the Pan Pipe, and if you missed a switch you'd end up
coughing on mere empty air when your lungs reached the saturation point, while the smoke
stayed trapped somewhere inside. Or if you mis-estimated you could find yourself choking on a
fogbank's volume of marijuana. Manny in particular seemed to have trouble adjusting to the
rhythm of the device. Few nights went by that he didn't spill some of its contents or miss a step
and send a plume of smoke jetting out an inadvertent opening. Ginevra, Thanh, and I had our
difficulties at the beginning but caught on eventually. Seth, in his enthusiasm to study the Pan
Pipe, borrowed it and drew up blueprints and a 3-D computer model one quiet afternoon. After
that day, he was as at home with it as with tying his shoes. That was the difference between
Leon and Seth. Leon created the device in a solitary act of brilliance without benefit of a single
diagram or plan. It was a work of art, something he could never explain or reproduce. Seth
would never have the vision to create something like the Pan Pipe, but once it existed he studied
it intimately, learning its intricacies. He understood it thoroughly, well enough to mass produce
them if necessary.
       As complicated as the device was, I'm not ashamed to admit that I practiced on it cold sober
for the first few weeks. Even after that, I usually began each evening with a dry run before
continuing with the real thing, much like a professional golfer taking a test swing.
     The Pan Pipe received its name partly because of the way it looked, partly because learning
it was like learning a musical instrument, and partly because its effects could easily bring about
confusion, panic attacks, and other chaotic mindsets typically associated with the goat-legged
god of antiquity.
     Despite the rest of us having difficulties, Leon never had trouble with the Pan Pipe.
Building it gave him an intimacy with the machinery that lent him an advantage, but his skills
reached far beyond what mere familiarity could provide. Leon played the Pan Pipe like a
virtuoso from day one. Bob Ross on his easel, Yo Yo Ma in concert, Barishnakov on the dance
floor, Leon on the Pan Pipe: enthralling performances all, something to tell the grandchildren
about. The grace, the masterful timing, the ease with which he could work from one stage to the
next, blindingly fast or achingly slow. Once he even rewired the Pan Pipe in mid-toke and sent
the smoke for another tour through the maze before inhaling it all. If Leon ever ran out of breath
before finishing a hit, I never saw it; he had bellows for lungs.
     The multitude of chambers in the bong quickly brought out the creative side of Leon, who
saw no reason to exclusively endorse plain water. He tried everything: snow, ice cubes, crushed
ice, cold water, warm water, cotton balls, paper wads, herbal tea, whiskey, root beer, fruit juice,
pine chips, and anything else that struck his fancy. With a normal bong, we never would have
considered most of those options, because it seemed a little unhealthy to be inhaling such things.
[Footnote: Unhealthy being a relative term: Pot smoke fell somewhere between eating
vegetables and snake handling on the scale of unhealthiness. We weren't sure that beer-soaked
marijuana molecules taken directly from a single chamber wouldn't put us closer to the glue-
sniffing end of the spectrum.] But suddenly, with a seven-stage filtration process(TM), we could
put a couple of drops of peppermint oil in the second chamber or a shot of tequila in the third
and feel confident by the time the smoke reached our lungs what was left wouldn't be
enormously detrimental to our health. Consequently, Leon's bookshelf always contained more
flavors than a Baskin Robbins. On this particular day, Leon had added vanilla extract to the
second chamber and orange juice to the fourth, so when I took my turn on the Pan Pipe my
mouth filled with the flavor of dreamcicle.
     I took too much. The next five minutes were spent suppressing a fit of coughing. By the
time I'd recovered enough to be able to speak, I realized I was too far gone to be able to say
anything coherently anyway. As I settled back against the wall to find a more comfortable
position, I noticed I still held my lighter. Seth, who had taken the Pipe from me some time ago,
looked in my direction and met my gaze. "There's one in Manny's pocket," I croaked, surprising
myself with both my insightful assessment of the situation and my ability to speak at all.
Somewhere inside, my brain patted itself on the back for a job well done.
     "A disposable camera?" Seth asked, looking confused. My brain stopped patting and started
churning. What the hell was he talking about? In the distance, I saw Manny peer mistrustfully
into his empty shirt pocket as if wondering what I might have slipped in there when he wasn't
     "Lighter," I said, giggling a little at his confusion.
     "What's lighter than a disposable camera?" Why was he fixating on cameras? What did a
camera have to do with a lighter, unless .... oh. I must have missed some of the conversation.
Now that I thought about it, there may have been some discussion going on while I was
coughing. I laughed out loud--both embarrassed and relieved to have solved the mystery--while
everyone else eyed me with impatient expressions. Their looks demanded an explanation.
      "No, there's a, um, cigarette lighter. In Panny's mocket. Manny's pocket. Not a camera. He's
got a lighter. So-"
      They kept looking at me. Thanh seemed distinctly amused. "So?" Seth prompted.
      "So ... see, I mean ... you were holding the bong and then I had my lighter in my hand, and
just then you looked at me, so I thought you were looking for a lighter and so I wanted to tell
you that Manny had one, so-"
      "You were telling me Manny had a lighter because you had a lighter?"
      "Um ... yeah. He does." Manny looked in his shirt pocket again, like a child who checks
behind his ears at a magic show to make sure there really aren't any quarters there before the
magician comes over and impossibly produces one anyway. "It's in your pants pocket," I said.
He reached inquisitively into his right-hand pocket and pulled out keys, change, and validine.
Several coins fell to the floor and disappeared like packrats under the furniture. Manny looked at
me and shrugged. "Your other pocket," I suggested.
      Manny fished around, finally coming out with the lighter from much earlier. He smiled at
his success, raised it slightly as if in toast to my diligence, and dropped it in his shirt pocket.
Everyone else had been quiet the entire time, merely observing whatever it was I was trying to
do. I just laughed at their confusion, handed Seth my lighter, and resolved to fade back into my
observational role before I muddled anything further. Seth took a hit, then went back to
discussing cameras with Leon and Ginevra.
      I settled back against the wall for a long and much-needed quiet spell. In the distance, my
consciousness faintly registered Manuel asking Leon, "Hey, man, can I bum a cigarette?"
      I expected college to be the best days of my life.
      Good God, I hope not! The years were good, I suppose. Better than high school, probably,
though not as pleasant as the early days of childhood when everything was fun and life was easy.
If, as they suggest, life after college is all downhill, then I really don't look forward to much.
      How could these possibly be my best days? I don't get the experience I dreamed of, I don't
find the answers I so desperately wanted, I don't have a vision for the future, or even immediate
prospects for a steady income. My course is unknown, my heart is empty, my mind has drunk
itself overfull at the fount of knowledge and sloshes with a noisy queasiness when disturbed. It
is May 30, 1997, and the town of Oberlin is as desolate as I have ever seen it. My friends have
all gone, the acquaintances have disappeared. My welcome upon the green lawns of Oberlin
diminishes by the day and my welcome in this place of lodging expires in two weeks. The
boredom is not surprising, but the loneliness is.
      My parents will arrive in another week and a half to take me away from all of this
emptiness where my heart was once full. I'd leave now, but after four years I can't fit all of my
worldly possessions into just one smallish car, so I need their help. I could probably leave most
of it behind, but my folks are also being insistent that they get to see the place and my
apartment. It's all over now, but they haven't been here since a visit fall of my freshman year,
and they wanted to see it one last time. I'm desperate enough to get out of here that those
rationales alone probably still couldn't keep me stationary if my car worked. But unfortunately
my own piece of junk is in the shop (again), waiting on some parts, and won't likely be ready
until the eighth or ninth of June anyway. So here I wait and count down the days to the tenth.
Until then, my expectations appropriately humbled by the irrevocable barrier we call time, I now
take this long look back with myself to find what impassive truths lie beneath the tumultuous
surface of my time at Oberlin, so-
     So on the afternoon of May 15, 1995, the inevitable became official when Manny handed
Thanh a twenty in Tappan Square and received a ten and five ones in change. Apparently I
wasn't the only one with derailed expectations; certainly Manny hadn't counted on becoming a
smoker during college. Thanh took his winnings and with conscious irony treated himself to two
packs of American Spirits at Mr. Gibson's establishment.
     While Leon, Manny, and I waited in the pleasant warmth of the sun-soaked grass, gazing
aimlessly at the traffic on College Street, Seth entered my field of view. I almost missed him
because he was walking on the lee side of Chaz Wilkins, our lab partner from Chemistry 102. It
would have been easy to lose Seth, because Chaz was built to play football, though the man also
had a mind sharp enough to cut stone.
     They were coming from class, I knew, because my slightly melty watch told me it was
exactly fifty-three minutes since I had stood outside the door to my chemistry lecture, placed a
small square of LSD-laced paper on my tongue, turned, and walked away. That hadn't been the
plan, of course. I take my education seriously and pride myself on never having missed a class
because I was hung over, or under the influence and unable to go. I've skipped on numerous
occasions (and slept through my share of them, too) but it's always been because I didn't want to
go--I was always perfectly capable of going. That may be a fine distinction, but it's an important
one to me. Choosing not to go to class may be irresponsible but it's an acceptable choice. Not
being able to go because I drank myself into a stupor the night before smacks of substance abuse
and lies on a different plane of irresponsibility altogether. Leastaways, that's how I see it, so-
     So Leon's film critique class was showing Drugstore Cowboy at 4:00 in Mudd: a movie a
number of us had talked about seeing all year. Visitors to the class were welcome, Leon told us--
the actual class of 20 students only filled a third of the room, so space was never an issue. To
truly appreciate the movie and the mindset of the characters we determined it was best to put
ourselves in their frame of mind. Namely, on drugs.
     Leon had just scored some acid the day before. He, Ginevra, Manny, and I were initially
going to take it in celebration after our last exam, but the movie was too good of an opportunity
to pass up. The tricky part was the timing. Being predictable is not one of acid's strong suits. We
figured it would be an hour after we took it before we started to feel anything, another hour to
get into the full swing of things, then an hour or two at cruising altitude before we began the
slow, swervy glide down to sea level. To get the most out of the experience, we figured we
should drop at 2:30, the same moment my chemistry lecture was supposed to begin. We all
pondered for a moment: would the plan fall through? Would they have to do it without me?
     "No problem," I said. "I'll drop right before class, take notes while the juice works its way
into my system, and get out of there just before the walls start breathing."
     "Right on!" Leon said, admiring either my spirit or my cojones, I'm not sure which. It
wasn't always clear what made Leon tick, but he was always enthusiastic about something.
     "Are you sure you want to do that, man?" Manny asked. "That's cutting it a little close. You
don't want to be stuck in class with a head full of acid. Bad vibes for sure."
     "Nah, it's fine. I don't want to miss this, but I can't miss my second-to-last class, either.
This'll work fine. The first hour always sucks, anyway, waiting for it to kick in."
     "You sure, man?"
     "Yeah, yeah. No worries. It's gonna be a blast!"
     And that's exactly what I continued to think, until the moment I stood outside the door of
my lecture in Kettering Hall with a piece of loaded paper on my tongue. I peeked inside. It was a
small room, with sterile white concrete walls. Charts were tacked to nearly every square foot of
available surface. Most of my classmates were already seated. Seth was talking animatedly with
a woman behind him named Sarah. She'd been in both the intro chem classes, but I hadn't yet
spoken to her, after a year of sharing the room thrice a week, plus labs. I knew she was sharp--
she always asked good questions--but that's about as much as I knew about the woman. That
was still more than I knew about all but a dozen of the thirty-five students in the class. Seth, on
the other hand, had sat next to and talked to every single person there at some time. He made a
point of it, he said. I quizzed him once; he could remember where most of them were from,
where they lived on campus, the intended majors (or lack thereof) of many of them, and the
phone numbers of at least half. He also knew from direct personal experience on which side of
the bed three of the women preferred to sleep.
      Seth always amazed me. Knowing that much about that many people just boggles my mind.
It also amazes me sometimes the ease with which he can strike up conversations. With the
number of people he knows, I have somehow managed to become a friend of long standing
while so many others have come and gone, but-
      But as I stood there outside the classroom, the professor tracing out shapes and names for
the building blocks of organic chemistry, I suddenly began to doubt the wisdom of waiting in
that room for combinations of those very same organic compounds to pull my mind like so
much taffy. If the dose was really strong, it could kick in sooner than an hour. Thirty minutes
wasn't unheard of. There's no way to know until it hits. Suppose the professor called on me right
at the end of class, and I couldn't make a sensible answer, or she noticed my pupils were the size
of frisbees. What if I suddenly had to leave? I wouldn't be able to explain it to anyone, and if the
drugs did something to me to make me need to leave, it was certain to involve enough paranoia
that I'd be unable to stand up in front of all those people and move. I could go slowly mad right
there on the spot, grinding my teeth to pumice and sweating myself away into a puddle of
incoherency. It could be really bad.
      Rationalizations swam through my mind. I wouldn't be able to concentrate on the lesson
anyway. I'd keep thinking about the drug: could I feel anything yet, when was it going to kick in,
did everyone else take it on time, how would I find them when I got out? The entire class would
be a waste. And if the class was going to be a waste, it would be practically criminal to also
waste the gorgeous, sunny warmth outside.
      I chewed thoughtfully on the slightly bitter paper in my mouth. Chew it up good, swallow it
in a couple of minutes just to make sure I get every drop. It would have been better not to have
taken it at all, or saved it for halfway through class just to make sure, but it was about thirty
seconds too late for alternatives. I knew if I stayed in the doorway much longer the professor
would see me and I'd have to go in, so I headed for the hills. (Naturally, I speak metaphorically.
Hill is such a foreign concept in northern Ohio that the mound of dirt beside the athletic fields is
referred to as Mount Oberlin.)
      Manny and Leon were sitting in Tappan Square. I planted myself there with them to wait
for the long-anticipated transaction with Thanh. Ginevra was to meet us there at ten till four,
which sounded a little risky to me. Punctuality and acid don't mix well. But she had some sort of
reason for being elsewhere for a while, so we agreed to the plan. Compared to my daring
schedule, hers were very run-of-the-mill, so-
      So it was while we were waiting for Ginevra that I saw Seth and Chaz strolling past us. I
called out Seth's name. He looked up, noticed me waving, and proceeded to do a perfect Martin-
step. Which is to say he slowed a little in mid-step so his left foot floated in suspended
animation for a moment, tilting him off-balance to the left. Just as quickly, he kicked back into
regular stride, his momentum now taking him in my direction, sending him just behind Chaz. So
swift and seamless was his execution, Chaz stopped and looked around in confusion when Seth
called to him from his left.
      "What just happened there?" he asked when he caught up with Seth, who had plopped
himself down with the rest of us. "I thought you were right next to me, and then you're halfway
across Tappan."
      Grinning, Seth said "You were just Martined."
      "Martined?" Chaz gazed at me questioningly.
      I said, "Yeah, they named it after me because I cut behind people sometimes."
      The first few times I did it, my friends found it startling, unnerving. But sometimes you
have to get yourself to the other side of somebody, and it's easier to fall behind than it is to try to
pull ahead. It's also nicer not to cut them off. This should be blindingly obvious to anyone who
has ever traversed a crowded sidewalk. It all goes back to what I was saying earlier about
navigating around campus: Somebody has to be paying attention and get out of the way.
Actually, I think what disturbs my friends the most is the speed and smoothness with which the
Martin-step can be performed. The trick is all in letting yourself fall off balance. It redirects your
momentum without requiring any extra effort, and it slows you down just enough that you can
pass safely behind anyone without hitting him. In theory, you could fall into step immediately
behind him. Or, if you're reasonably tall--as I am--you can make the step a long one and
suddenly you're on the other side of your companion. One more slightly hastened step puts you
in stride with your friend once again, safely out of the path of oncoming traffic, trees, dog
droppings, and other unpleasantries.
      My friends are now accustomed to the Martin-step; they practice it amongst themselves.
Sometimes, for entertainment, two of them will repeatedly Martin-step one another, working
their way across the sidewalk in a continual braid of motion. And on occasion I myself am
startled to find that the friend I thought was to my left is inexplicably speaking to me from my
      Other than the potential surprise of your companion, there is one other risk inherent to the
maneuver. If for some reason the person you're stepping around comes to a complete stop, you'll
barrel right into him. It's difficult to avoid, too, because you've just intentionally thrown yourself
off balance. But such a collision has happened to me only once in years of Martin-stepping. On
that occasion during my junior year, I was walking out of my first art history lecture, talking
with a woman from class. Her name was Kim. Exuberant as I was about the subject material, I
broke out of my normally reserved observational shell so I could get somebody else's opinion
about all of those marvelous things we'd just heard. A drinking fountain loomed in front of me,
a herd of students milling around it. Taking evasive action, I Martin-stepped to avoid them. But
a sudden grandiose elbow gesture from a classmate on the other side of Kim stopped her cold.
We collided, bumping heads, and her books spilled to the ground. While I frantically tried to
apologize and collect her belongings, she asked me out, and we dated for the rest of the year.
      So I guess you could say that in botching a Martin-step I pulled a Homer.
                              Chapter the Fourth: Ixthyaki
     When Ish unexpectedly entered our dorm room one April afternoon to find me poring over
our magnetic poetry set with a dictionary in one hand, a notepad in the other, and a pencil
clenched firmly between my teeth, I was initially so surprised I could only cringe and mutter a
pencil-slurred "d'oh!" to myself.
     I recovered quickly, jumping to my feet and doing my best to look like I had just been
pausing in front of the refrigerator en route to stowing the dictionary and notebook away on a
bookshelf, but neither of us was really fooled. For one thing, the fridge with the poetry was on
Ish's side of the room, completely opposite from any place where I might conceivably have been
retrieving the book. Beyond that, despite my best efforts I began to blush furiously, and to
complicate matters I replied to my roommate's friendly greeting with a string of gibberish
because I hadn't bothered to take the pencil out of my mouth, even after I'd turned and leaned
casually against the desk as if my work was done and I'd nothing better to do than grin at Ish and
hold a friendly conversation.
     Believe it or not, these strange but harmless actions were about to prompt one of the most
frustrating conversations I ever had with Ish, representing the culmination of a lengthy series of
competitions by which my roommate had repeatedly put me to shame.

      As with so many other things, the whole event began and ended with Ginevra. We were
playing Scrabble, a seemingly innocent game. I had just played the word "hand" on a double
word score, laid across and immediately above her "chin," also racking up double points for the
"hi," and regular points for the "an." I could have played "hack" instead and received more
points--at five points the K is valuable and a good one to use on a double word score--but I have
to admit I was far too taken with the idea of placing my hand upon her chin and scoring big to
pass up the opportunity. Yes, I frequently thought like that around Ginevra. How could I not?
She had a very cuppable chin, too. The perfect tip to a perfect oval face. Not too pointy, just
right to trace out the path from forefinger down to the web of my hand and back up to the tip of
my thumb.
      Of course, her chin was just one of many parts which I deemed eminently cuppable. Not
just the obvious bulges that the reader may think are implied: I mean her elbows, her shoulders,
the flesh at the back of her knee when her legs were extended. Any one of those would have
been as therapeutic as a worry stone, a tonic for my concerns. The stones have a dimple to rub
with your thumb whenever you're tense, to help you relax. I swear to you, the back of Ginevra's
knee would have been ten times as good. I yearned to place my hand atop that bulge of flesh,
positioning my thumb in the divot between the muscle and the bone of the knee, and to slowly
caress the spot until all was right with the world. It was stretched out right in front of me, mere
inches from my own Indian-style posture. Her right leg was extended, the left bent inward with
her foot tucked underneath her right thigh. It was late March, but it had been unseasonably
warm that day and she wore shorts. All it would take was for me to bend over and reach out,
      But I bent over, reached out, and selected another four tiles for the game. Sentimental
notions aside, saving the K wasn't a terrible strategic blunder because I also had a C and an L.
All it would take was an A and I could spell "lack." I had the perfect place for it, too. There was
already a "now" on the board that was dying to become a "know," and in the process give me
beaucoup points.
      The first letter I pulled was an O. Then a U, followed by an I. That was bad, too many
vowels. But my final letter was the A that I wanted! While I waited for Ginevra to move, I
shuffled letters to see if I could spell anything else. Slowly it dawned on me that not only could I
spell lack, but luck, lock, and lick were all available to me as well. Weird!
      Could I do it with an E as well? Leck? Never heard of leck. Still, that was strange. Lick-
lack-lock-luck but no leck. Curioser and curioser, I thought. I wondered briefly if there were any
words where I could get all five vowels to work. But then Ginevra took her turn, spelling "delta"
downwards from the D in "hand." I dropped my plans for the now/know conversion in favor of
using the A in "delta" to spell "la." I had to act quickly while her "delta" was open for my "lick."
It wasn't as many points, but I was already way ahead. And anyway, some things really are more
important than winning.
      In the excitement of making my move, my curiosity about the interchangeable vowels was
lost for a while. But late that night, as I stared at the ceiling, doing a verbal version of counting
sheep, the words began to drift through my mind again. Lick-lack-lock-luck-leck. No leck. What
else? Stick-stack-stock-stuck-steck. No steck. Mick-mack-mock-muck-meck. No meck. Flick-
flack-flock-fluck-fleck. No fluck. And was it flack or flak? Think smaller. Three-letter words.
Pig-pag-pog-pug-peg. No pag. The it hit me: big-bag-bog-bug-beg. It worked! I'd found a set!
      I rolled over and grabbed the notebook I keep near my bed for such occasions. Unwilling to
turn on a light and disturb the already-sleeping Ish, I just flipped to a blank page and wrote as
best I could in the dark. The notebook is a defense, because sleep sometimes does strange things
to my memory. Or rather, not so much sleep as the sudden frantic scurrying that I put myself
through in the morning after snoozing thirty minutes too many is what makes it so hard for me
to remember my thoughts of the night before. The next morning was no exception, and if not for
the notebook placed on the floor where my feet usually land, I might have forgotten the concept
entirely. As it was, I wasted a valuable couple of minutes trying to translate what looked like
"loig bagtooq bugbe g." The delay was enough to cost me my usual bagel and cream cheese
from the snack bar on the way to my first class, but the eventual return of enlightenment was
worth it.
      From that moment on, it became something of a quest for me. Not quite an obsession, but
more than a game, to find all the words in which you can take one of the vowels and replace it
with any other vowel and still make a word. For convenience, I started using computer science
notation. For example, the first set I found I coded as b*g, where the asterisk/star character
represents a wild card. Normally in computing the * can be replaced by any series of letters or
numbers, but in this case my intention is to restrict it to single vowels: a, e, i, o, u. [Footnote: I'm
not going to worry about 'y' much for now, as it makes the game nearly impossible. And, no, the
Welsh 'W' doesn't count either. I never understood how W got to be a vowel in words like
"cwm" and "wbr." If it's pronounced "coom" why can't it just use a vowel like regular words?
And how come "Welsh," isn't pronounced "ooelsh" then? What a weird language. All I have to
say is: cwm, my fwt.]
      I don't entirely know why I was so fascinated by the concept; I just was. It's a curious
phenomenon of linguistics, maybe. These are un-abbreviable words. That's part of their appeal
for me. I'm notorious for writing down directions and later trying to figure out of I'm supposed
to be turning left (lt.) or if I should be looking for a light (lt.). If an old receipt reads "pnt." did
you buy pants, paint, or a pint at the local pub? If a movie review describes a character as a real
chmp., is he a champ or a chump? Or is he actually simian--starring in one of those chimp
comedies? Sometimes you can tell from the context, but it's not always so clear. They say there's
enough redundancy in the English language that you could take out forty percent of the letters
and still have coherently written words. [Footnote: They say ther's enuf redndncy in th Englsh
lang tht u coud tke out frty pcnt of th letrs and stil hav cohrntly wrtn wrds. Sdly, ths exmpl only
gts a thrty pcnt rdctn.] But the word sets I'm talking about don't have that luxury.
     I may also have become intrigued by these words because I know that the written Hebrew
Bible doesn't use vowels. It's a sort of code, I've been told. The spoken language has vowel
sounds, but only the consonants are scribed. It's always amazed me that they could get away
with something like that, and I certainly have to wonder about the risk of mis-translations. The
words I was looking for are the ones that give kids nightmares for weeks before their bar
     But mostly I like these sets because I find it entertaining to chant the words softly to myself,
even the combinations that don't make any particular sense. Sing-sang-song-sung-seng. Ping-
pang-pong-pung-peng. Lick-lack-lock-luck-leck. Stick-stack-stock-stuck-steck. Fun, isn't it?
Verb conjugation probably got me started with series I had to memorize as a child: sing-sang-
sung, ring-rang-rung, swim-swam-swum, and the like. Just tack on the spare words that don't
exist, and you're there. For whatever aesthetic reasons, I find it rolls off the tongue easier if you
don't go in alphabetic order. Maybe it's because of the verb tables again, but i-a-o-u-e just feels
right and alphabetic order strikes the ear strangely. It may be just me; but as far as I know I've
invented the concept, so I can set whatever conventions I choose.
     I call them quintaphones. "Quint-" representing the five vowels and "phone" because they
sound similar. Linguists might argue that sound has very little to do with the concept, and they
might be right. There probably is a more appropriate suffix that would suggest spelling is the
key, but I'm determined to use "quintaphone" primarily because it contains all five vowels, one
of each. A fitting concordance, no?
     Along the way I've noticed some quirks of the language. There are quite a few time-saving
rules I learned to apply to help me in my search, stemming from pronunciation and spelling
standards. I won't go into them here, but the details are included in Appendix A along with a
complete list of the quintaphones and quartaphones I've found, if you're curious. Quartaphones
are particularly intriguing: they're sets where four of the five vowels make words but one of
them doesn't. For starters, they provide us with candidates for new words that are practically
begging to be invented. Mist-mast-most-must invites us to complete the set by providing a
definition for mest. If sip, sap, sop, and sup are words, then shouldn't sep get its own day in the
sun? Someone should stockpile a list of these words-in-waiting so that the next time an artist
strives for a particular shade of meaning or a researcher develops some new device, he can just
grab a name from the word armory. Especially in computers, there's a point where acronyms are
becoming a serious pain. Sure, you can invent a connector, label it something long and
immemorable, transcribe the acronym as SCSI, and pronounce the thing "scuzzy," but why not
just call it a "rog" port and complete a quintaphone in the process? Who cares what ADB or
USB or PS-2 stand for? Why not just name the things a leck connector, a sed port, or a dack
line? The general populace wouldn't give a damn anyway. If anything, they'd be happier because
acronyms are harder to remember than names. I can't tell you how many times I've heard
someone say something like UBS instead of USB, but nobody would ever mispronounce "sed."
And with a made-up name, there's never the question, "What's TCP/IP stand for, anyway?" Most
people don't know, and of those who do, very few of them actually care.
      Both quartaphones and quintaphones are rare. Not surprisingly, I've discovered many more
of the former than the latter. Nearly three times as many.
      Finding them took a lot of effort, too. Every short word that crossed my path rattled through
my skull, prancing warily with an array of unfamiliar vowels. I tried to enroll my friends in the
search for more of these sets. Only Seth and Ginevra were game enough to try. Slowly and
painfully we racked up a precious few quintaphones. D*n, p*t, l*st, m*ss, r*m (if you count
ROM, which I do). After a few days of confusion, I sat down and invented the term quintaphone
to help explain what I was talking about when I ran into Seth's room shouting, "I found another
      "Set of what?" they'd ask.
      And then I'd have to explain, "A set of words with the five vowels, the interchangeable
      And they'd say, "Ohhh. That again?"
      "Yes!" I'd say, but I'd be thinking to myself "yis-yas-yos-yus-yes, that's no good."
      Seth also pointed out that we could extend the m*ss quintaphone to m*sses. I argued that
we couldn't count it, though, because if the root already works then the extension doesn't count.
      "But you're not using the root the same way," Seth said. "Miss to misses is changing the
tense of a verb. Moss to mosses is changing a noun to a plural noun. It's just coincidence that
they both add an -es. They're doing the same thing, but for completely different reasons."
      I countered, "Miss could be a noun. As in 'he took four penalty shots, but three of them
were misses.'"
      "All right. Use muss, then. It's only a verb."
      Still unconvinced, I kept looking for longer quintaphones as a challenge. There just had to
be a one with more than four letters. I decided if I couldn't find anything else, I might have to
resort to Seth's theory, but it galled me. It would have to take years before I gave up, after
graduation maybe. Other word games--like the one where you try to find as many words as you
can that can be spelled from the letters of a longer word--don't usually accept plurals. I wasn't
going to soften up the rules just to let myself win. That's like playing the "pick a number" game
by yourself. You win, but there isn't any real point. I'm just a purist, I suppose.

     I started looking everywhere I could for possible matches. Tried random words as they
popped into my head. Skimmed pages in books for anything promising. Eavesdropped on other
conversations in the cafeteria and lounges--not for content but for vocabulary. It was this quest
that eventually led me to be kneeling in front of the magnetic poetry set with the dictionary,
pencil, and notebook as accomplices.
     The magnetic poetry had been a gift to the both of us from our RC, Devin. Apparently, in
the span of a single day both my roommate and I collectively stopped in front of his room six or
seven times to play with the set that he kept stuck to the frame of his door. He grew tired of
continually hearing shuffling and scratching outside his room (and occasional giggles of glee
from me as I found a good rhyme--doubtless Ish's discoveries were made in a more dignified
and serene fashion). So he bought us a set to obsess over within the privacy of our own
sanctuary. We affixed the magnets to the fridge and went to work immediately.
      My first poem wasn't much to look at, though artistically I think it bore some merit as a
personal statement. It wasn't so much a composition as just straightening out some connected
words and seeing truth waiting to be revealed. It took just a few minutes--with nearly a third of
the available words still stuck together inside the box--to put together:
      "No he never could write in full rhythm to some mad passion song masterpiece within
      Which actually describes very well my approach to all art. There is a muse out there
somewhere, and on occasion she flings iridescent day-glo bolts of inspiration straight through to
my soul. In rare moments, I can channel this spark into an effortless and stunning outpouring of
brilliance. Out pops a gripping poem, a noteworthy short story, or a well-turned sketch that,
though amateur, still conveys the full import of what I was feeling when I created it. My decent
work, when it happens, can unfailingly bring me back to the frame of mind that inspired the
piece in the first place. I guess that's the criterion that defines a "quality" piece for me.
      There's a pen drawing I made of an old lightning-blasted tree that I ran across at a park
somewhere in the Midwest. Something about the tree just held my attention, so that I sat down
and stared at it for ten or fifteen minutes before continuing with my hike. Much of its top was
gone. A few dead branches jutted at odd angles. The knotted trunk was blackened and twisted.
I'm sure the twisting came long before the lightning, but somehow the two factors combined to
leave an impression of incredible tension. The tree had been dead for years, but still the trunk
held on, useless as it was. I was riveted by a barrage of emotions that seemed to emanate from
the tree. Burden. Strain. Anguish. Loneliness. And perseverance. Above all, a stubborn,
determined will to continue, despite the incredible weight of the world. All of that struck me, so
that when I got home that night I tried to sketch the tree from memory. The drawing is rough,
the lines are jagged. The branches are disproportionate and go off at impossible angles, not to
mention that there aren't enough of them. But somehow it doesn't matter, because the trunk is
perfect. Simplistic as it is, my jagged lines evoke the sense of twisting and strain and the
knotting of the wood. The perfection has nothing to do with accurate reproduction, and
everything to do with essence. Every time I pull out that piece of paper, I might as well be
standing right in front of that tree. It all just floods back to me.
      That's my reason for doing any art, to recreate some set of sensations or emotions that have
inspired me. It's a means to something powerful, to something bigger than workaday concerns.
That's what I strive for, at least. Something as good as my drawing of the tree comes along once
a year, maybe. The rest of the time, creativity is a struggle. The vision fades, life intercedes, or I
just can't get it right. My product is entertaining, but not gripping; interesting, but not thought-
provoking; diverting, but not touching. A fifth draft of a poem will be no closer to catching my
mood than the first four. A drawing--not my strong suit, anyway--just comes out deformed and
childish. A story goes unfinished and forgotten. The bolts from the Muse keep zipping around
inside me, but there's no conduit to release them fully expressed. There's a vision, but there's
nothing to make it real. There's passion, but what was meant to be brought to life falls from my
hands stillborn. Some days, it's like being mute, and you've just composed a song. Something
deep and wonderful is doing its best to burst out into the world, but the portal is flawed. I am
flawed. The world misses out on a lot of the divine that way.
      Maybe it's a lack of practice. With more training I could transcend my current limitations to
express myself. Or maybe art is just more difficult than I expect it to be. The bolts from the blue
are great, but maybe most of the time it's supposed to take effort. Maybe most poems need ten
drafts, or twenty. Maybe the unfinished stories just require a little more persistence, or a lot
more persistence. Maybe, if I feel such a strong urge to burst into song, I should consider
singing lessons.
     It's just that Ish always made artistic expression seem ridiculously easy, whether it be
drawing, photography, singing, or magnetic poetry. Ish set the bar for excellence. It turned out
that his mother, besides being a world-renowned philosopher, also held a substantial reputation
as a master of haiku. Ish had grace and poise and rhythm, whereas I got by on flashes of
inspiration and serendipity that placed two words together with a beauty which I only had to
discover. Comparing the two of us is like comparing an Olympic diver to a kid doing a
     My second poem was a little more intellectual. I'm quite proud of it, in fact, primarily
because it contained a pun.
                My cigarette
                will always
                live on
                through my
     "That's very witty, Dale," Ish said. My roommate was the only person at Oberlin who knew
my true name, remembered from our interaction on that fateful first evening. It should have been
welcome, but somehow this, too, grated on my nerves. Yet another way in which Ixthyaki was
superior to the rest of Oberlin. Yet another way in which he was formal, proper, out-and-out
correct, and it annoyed the hell out of me. After the first few days, I fully embraced my new
identity as Martin Dalí. That's who I was at Oberlin, and being called Dale both served as a
reminder of my confused identity and brought back associations of my family and youth that Ish
didn't belong to. It felt like he was intruding, like he'd finagled a seat at the Thanksgiving dinner
table alongside my brother and sister. In another world, at another time, myth and legend would
say his knowing my true name gave him power over me. In this time and place, the truth was
actually not all that different.
     Of course I never suggested to him that he call me Martin, even though I'm sure he would
have if I'd asked. Ish would have taken it too seriously. There are times when a favor is so small
you hesitate to ask, because certain people will read too much into it. Like if you're in the back
seat of a car and ask for an extra inch of room, the person in front is likely to give you half a
foot even if you don't need it. If you're asking for something small, people tend to assume you're
really hinting after something larger and try to give it to you. I don't know what I thought Ish
would do, but I was convinced his apology would have been far more awkward than just
accepting that he was going to call me Dale.
     My roommate's first poem was a tribute to his ancestors: a truncated haiku.
                sense pain and
                create music
                to break free
     Proper haiku have three lines, possessing five syllables, seven syllables, and five syllables,
in that order. His truncated version fit a similar format but contained only three, four, and three
syllables, respectively. I have since learned that apparently 95 percent of all haiku are supposed
to make reference to viewing cherry blossoms (or occasionally other flowers) by moonlight.
Since neither "cherry," nor "blossom" nor "flower" graced our collection, none of our poems are
likely to make the scene in Japanese literary circles.
      Relatively speaking, that should have been a crushing defeat for Ixthyaki. But he faced the
limitation with aplomb; of course he was far too composed and rational to bemoan what could
not be. Any respectable Obie would have spent a few days--even better, an entire week--
complaining about the inadequacy of the selection, the obviously Euro-centric bias implied by
the lack of proper haiku-type words, the shoddiness of the resulting work and--in fact--the
whole magnetic poetry concept in general. But Ish merely smiled at his accomplishment and
then rattled off another half-dozen breathtaking haiku (with proper syllable counts) before the
day was out, none of them about flowers. Not a single complaint passed his lips.
      To my knowledge, no complaint ever passed his lips. The man was stoic as hell. If ever an
adversity reared its head in his direction, his response was always a swift and silent dispatch.
This was an entirely un-Oberlin sort of attitude. Late in my college career it struck me that you
could identify your friends as the people whose conversations dealt with anything other than
their workload or complaints about their "issues." Ish rarely spoke of either. By definition I
suppose that made him my best friend at the school, but it's more likely he's the exception that
proves the rule.
      Ish was a rare breed. He was one of those few who had it together. He was well-adjusted.
Calm, collected. Completely at peace. He seemed to know where he was going, to understand
what pattern he was following. There's more, and the distinction could be fine at times, but the
most precise summary I can give is that he "had it together." To my eyes, this described at best
maybe one in a hundred students. I met five or six others who also seemed to fit that description,
but I knew all of them only casually, so it's possible that some flaws lurked within. But on the
surface they seemed to have a maturity beyond their years. They had more answers than
questions. They had few complaints and made much progress, both on their own and in class.
They were happy, stable, amiable, relaxed, healthy. Confident too, which probably bothered me
the most. How could they already know so much that they could exude such confidence? By
comparison I felt years behind, and utterly unsure of myself.
      That's what drove me nuts. How could he approach college without wavering or worrying
at least occasionally? How could the man have such solid footing in all areas of life? How did
he always know what to do? It was like he saw some grand pattern to life that I just couldn't
grasp, and while he picked out his path from above, I scrambled and ricocheted up and down
blind alleys and wrong turns. I could imagine he'd been given an instruction manual at birth,
while the rest of us went without. It's the only thing that could explain everything: how he knew
from day one exactly which two majors he would study, how he found Mirriam immediately and
maintained a continually happy relationship with her, how he always seemed to be content no
matter what was going on. God it sickened me.
      I don't begrudge Ish doing well, it was just that the consistency of it went too far. All in all,
my friends and I weren't in particularly bad shape. Most of us had some combination of all those
traits I've described for a person who has it together. We could be calm, and collected, and
amiable, and bright, and have a plan. But for most of us, those moments were short-lived or
incomplete. We had visible flaws. We were human. Seth maintained a general cheerfulness but
felt completely baffled as to his future. Leon tore through his coursework with an astounding
velocity and thoroughness, but obsessed to distraction over quirky projects like the Pan Pipe and
the Pattern. Manny had a secure and consistent plan for his future, but he drove himself to
becoming a smoker against his own will. Ginevra possessed enough maturity to serve as CRO
and RC for two years, helping to look after an entire dorm full of students, but she always
overloaded herself on courses and then continually complained about the volume of work she
had to do, the number of assignments on which she was behind, and the number of extensions
she would need to pass the semester. She usually dropped or got an incomplete in one or two
courses each semester, so that it took her five years to graduate. Dave could charm a crowd with
his wit and stories, but his few attempts at relationships ended quickly and with much neurotic
over-analysis. His fretting once led him to literally run away from a cafeteria when a recent ex
made an unexpected appearance. Elana could denounce in detail news of the unjust all around
the world, but she fought with depression and went through counselling the entire time she was
at Oberlin. Polly had issues with money, and struggled with unrequited feelings for Dave, to
boot. Kim was shaken by her parents' sudden divorce. And so on. Every one of them shed tears
in my room at some occasion, most more than once. That's just how things went. Despite all our
best efforts, sometimes the world still got us down.
      But not Ish. He was always solid. He was healthy. He was clean, pure. He didn't do drugs,
drank with moderation and restraint. You'd think this would make him stodgy, but somehow he
still managed to have fun. He laughed frequently, if with a certain reserve, mostly at witty,
intellectual jokes. He and Mirriam laughed almost continually when they were together. It
wasn't usually much more than an extended chuckle, but the humor was there. And they liked to
dance, primarily swing. On the academic side, Ish studied adequately and without complaint. He
aced nearly everything but reacted with equal aplomb whenever his efforts garnered him
something in the B range. When that happened, he just as complacently corrected his mistakes
and went on to ace the next opportunity.
      Of course it sickened me. How could it not?
      Worst of all, though, my roommate had absolutely no shame. I don't mean that like most
people normally say it; Ish didn't act outrageously and tell the world if it didn't like his choices it
could go to hell--he simply had nothing for which to be ashamed. And that just didn't work for
the rest of us. Oberlin society runs on shame. Shame greases our axles and fuels our engines.
Pointing out imperfections resides at the core of the Oberlin experience, making it completely
obvious to all of us that we're all guilty in one way or another. We admit it wholeheartedly, revel
in it. Only at a bible-thumping, hellfire-and-brimstone, being-born-again-in-the-eyes-of-Christ-
hallelujah! revival will you find a more enthusiastic bunch of self-effacing, craven, weak-willed
sinners. We find comfort from our peers that they're in the same boat we are. Their confessions
make us feel better, and ours them. Mutual redemption works wonders. "You slept through three
classes this week? That's nothing, I slept through six and skipped two." "You haven't had sex in
six months? It's been a year for me." Confess your fears and you'll find they're scared, too.
Confess your worries; they're angst-ridden as well. Whisper your deepest, hairiest thoughts and
they'll smile in understanding. It's an open and willing exchange. If you hide your shame,
someone might find it out one day and embarrass you mortally by bringing it to light. But
confess your shame and they'll release a sigh of relief and confess theirs, too. And it's all okay. If
they're ashamed, then you're not so bad. If you're ashamed, then they're not so bad, either.
Confide in each other, conspire with each other to support and affirm and all is forgiven.
      And then there was Ish, with not a thing to hide, not a thing to be ashamed of. The whole
support system broke down around him. I couldn't decry in woeful tones, "I should have studied
but got sucked into the Beavis and Butthead marathon instead," when I knew he just came from
three hours at the library. Just once, I would have liked to be able to say to him, "You see that
woman across the dining hall? Political correctness aside for the moment, you could bounce a
quarter off that ass." And I most definitely couldn't relay to him how, wandering home the night
before, I passed the King Memorial and decided to remove the aluminum M from the side of the
building and bring it home so that now--with the K and the O already missing--the building
should be referred to as "Ing Emrial." Because I knew if I tried to explain it, he'd just look at me
with those dark, concerned eyes as if to say, "A million years of evolution, and this is all the
further we've come from monkeys?" Except that he wouldn't actually criticize, wouldn't even
think to judge. Which is much worse. You can dismiss someone if they call you wrong. You can
accept them if they conspire to share a shame of their own. But when you offer up a failure,
saying "I have this to be ashamed of," if there is no absolution by reciprocation the silence
veritably roars with the implied, "Why yes, you should be ashamed."
     It got so that it didn't even matter if I stayed silent. Just knowing Ish wouldn't play along
forced me to face within myself all those things that I would never be able to tell him. In his
presence, I beat myself up over every thought and memory I knew I couldn't share. He didn't
even do or say anything; I put myself through these hoops all on my own. I suppose it was good
for me, in a way. There were only two options: avoid Ish at all costs or live a life that left his
presence somewhat bearable. Even though I spent considerable time outside the room, I couldn't
bring myself to intentionally avoid it, either. Stubborn machismo shows up in me at the weirdest
times with a sudden unwillingness to back down or admit defeat. So that left me living my life--
when I could manage it--by the WWID philosophy: "What would Ixthyaki do?"
     You may ask, why didn't I just move out of the room? Try to find another roommate,
someplace more comfortable, someone more philosophically aligned with myself? I couldn't.
Because that would have meant Ish had won, and there was no way in hell I was going to admit
defeat that easily. I wouldn't even dream of letting him know that I found him difficult to live
with, because that was one more item in the long list of shameful truths he wouldn't understand
and I couldn't share. It wasn't like Ish caused any problems. How could I complain? I hated his
niceness and neatness? Thus it was I couldn't even dream of moving out. In fact, not only did I
stay with him the entire year, I roomed with him sophomore year as well.
     Why? Primarily it had to do with a random number. Pure chance, or an evil twist of fate, as
you will. If I could have roomed with one of my close friends, I would have. But Thanh and
Leon paired off again, Manny shared a room with a friend from another social circle, and Seth
got himself a single through the luck of the draw.
     Housing at Oberlin is determined by a number of factors. First among these is your
seniority. Students who have been there the most semesters get to choose first. So fifth-year
double-degree students (who are finishing a combined college and conservatory education)
usually have the run of the campus if they so desire. However, fifth-years, seniors, and married
students are allowed to live in off-campus quarters, and they frequently do. Underclassmen are
generally required to stay on campus, though junior and senior year over-enrollment allowed
many juniors to live off-campus as well. On-campus, most of the rooms were divided doubles,
with a few open doubles, a number of singles, a few quads, and a very small number of triples in
the Burton dorm.
     Among students of the same class, priority of housing choice is given based upon a random
housing number distributed to each student. The number is between 1 and 3000, with lower
numbers being better. Generally, the room distribution works such that seniors get just about
anything they want, juniors who want singles can have them, and a very few select sophomores-
to-be may have the option as well. Oberlin actually kept track per semester, so having enough
AP credit to jump a semester ahead of your peers could provide you a surprising additional
benefit for all that extra work during high school. Ish, predictably, was only a few hours shy of
juniordom by the end of our first year. Per my usual procrastination I hadn't bothered with the
AP tests and received no such bonus. The only thing that could help me out was a really killer
random number to give me a shot at a single. With seniority and the option to live off-campus,
the numbers don't mean much to seniors and fifth-years; it's really only for one's freshman and
sophomore drawings that a low number is particularly useful, so-
     So it was I waited with great anticipation for my ranking, only to tear open my envelope
and set my suddenly steely gaze upon the number 2174. I was doomed.
     Seth got number 32, which placed him neatly into a single, the lucky bastard. Ixthyaki, to
my great lack of wonderment, drew number 4. With his seniority and his number, Ish was in the
perfect position to score a single if he so desired. Instead, he asked me if I'd like to room with
him again. Just because I hated the idea didn't mean it would make sense to anyone else. What
could I do? A double was a certainty for me at this point. I could try to find another guy to share
a room with me, but there really wasn't anyone available who I wanted to live with. I could go in
on my own, pick myself a room, and leave it to the College to shuffle in a suitable roommate for
me. But I knew there could be worse choices than Ixthyaki out there, and between the job they
did getting me a lousy housing number and pairing me with Ish in the first place, I didn't like my
chances. A known obstacle is always better than an unknown one. Also, by going on my own,
my number was bad enough I might not even get a divided double. I really didn't want to spend
another year without at least a door to close when I needed privacy. If I stuck with Ish, we'd end
up averaging our numbers, pulling him down but lifting me up considerably. We'd be sure to get
a divided double and possibly even the dorm of our choice.
     Behind all that rationalization there was also the knowledge that turning down Ish's offer
would suggest that I didn't want to live with him, which would put me right back into the
dangerous territory of shame I couldn't share with him, so-
     So I said yes, and we checked ourselves into a divided double in East. It wasn't ideal, but it
could have been worse.
     Having received a lousy number my freshman year, hope sprang eternal that karma might at
least give me a fighting chance the second time around, for my junior year housing.
     I drew 2365. But being a junior I managed to get my own room that year, through enrolling
in the Spanish program house. Twelve months later, figuring that it no longer mattered what
number I received as a senior, I expected to finally see a ticket with a low, low price. Not so: My
last year came in at 2706, even worse than the previous two years. Whatever, I figured, as I was
moving into an off-campus house anyway. At least the misery was over. Since I was graduating
at the end of the next year, I was done with housing numbers. But I was wrong. With no
apparent rationale, come housing time my senior year, there was an envelope in my mailbox
again. With a wry smile and the blockheaded persistence of a football-punting Charlie Brown, I
opened the letter and found I'd received number 2998. Oberlin only has about 2800 students in a
given semester. That meant that there were open slots that did better than I did. I'd been beaten
out by 200 people who didn't even exist!
     Barring a complete freak of nature or a student who stayed for more than seven years, odds
are good that I received a higher cumulative housing number than any other student in Oberlin
history. It's a small claim to fame, and one on which I would have passed if given the choice.
But it's just one more small stroke in the masterpiece of misery that Oberlin painted for me.
Doing the math, I received a total of 10,243 points on a scale from 4 to 12,000. There's no way
any fifth-year ever scored higher. Seth, in three years, stayed under 1500. At that rate, it'd take
him a dozen years to match me.
      Of course all this isn't entirely Oberlin's fault. Random numbers are a matter of luck, after
all. The unnecessary final insulting number came about due to the blindness of bureaucracy.
Regardless of the lack of culpability, that's how events seemed to go for me at Oberlin, and in
some way I hold the institution at least partially responsible. Why? Because it just wouldn't have
happened like that anywhere else. And it might be silly, but maybe I actually take a little pride in
all the shit they put me through.

      If there was anything Ixthyaki couldn't do well, I never found it. And I tried just about
everything. Word games, riddles, puzzles, board games, physical skills. He clobbered me at
chess, trounced me in Scrabble.[Footnote: Scrabble(TM) is the trademark of the people who
own Scrabble. Chess should be the trademark of some Arab long dead who whose ancestors
desperately wish he'd filled out the paperwork properly.] I could almost hold my own with
games of chance--cards, dice, and the like. But even Yahtzee has enough strategy for him to pull
ahead more often than not. And besides, the man was incredibly lucky. Ish was made from the
stuff of legend. My copy of According to Hoyle didn't last through my sophomore year. I'd study
a new game in and out, play a couple of practice hands to buff up on strategy, and still within
half a hour Ish would be suggesting maneuvers that made up the finer points of the game. I took
him to Zeke so I could lose at pool, to the athletic fields to fail at tennis, to German house to
flail through a match of ping-pong. We met at the arcade so I could get my digital nose bloodied
and my normally capable ass launched across the screen in a spray of fire, dirt, and blood. Even
though my roomie played computer games only rarely, he had all of the high scores in Tetris and
Minesweeper, where reflexes count for everything. Through dogged persistence, I managed to
get my name in most of the slots on solitaire and could make it through more levels on
Lemmings than he could. Triple Yahtzee on the computer was roughly an even split: he played
better, I played more.
      All of this was good-natured competition, at least on the surface. Ish was nothing if not a
good sportsman. No matter what the outcome, he ended every match with a genuine "good
game" and an outstretched hand. I always reciprocated sincerely, but on the inside something
seethed and roiled. With the warmth of his palm still fading from my skin, I'd be contemplating
my next challenge. It's not that I mind losing--that happens enough in this world even without
Ixthyaki's meddling--it's just that I was appalled and practically offended by the regularity and
the severity of the beatings. Normally, at the very least, I can hold my own. I like games, and the
competition, and I play often enough that I'm capable. With certain games, Scrabble for
instance, I expect to win against all but a select few individuals. And with any of them, I know
there's some other arena in which I can stand triumphant. For example, my brother, who's a few
years older, has always been able to beat me at Scrabble, but he can't match me in strategy
games like chess or Axis and Allies. But whoever I play, I expect some give and take. I mind not
at all when someone is better at a particular skill than I, but no one was allowed to be my
superior in all things. Win some, lose some, that was fine. Losing isn't awful; losing is just the
risk you take to get a good challenge, and that's where all the fun is. But when things are
hopeless, utterly and overwhelmingly so, there's just no room for fun. If there'd been just one
thing, any thing, where I could continually show him up, I could have let it all drop. I still think
it has to exist, but I've never found it.
      With Ish, I could pull something off just often enough that it never got hopeless, but neither
did I ever rank well enough against him to be able to relax and enjoy it. If what we did was a
metaphor for life, while Ish lived prosperously off the fat of the land I was fighting tooth and
nail for survival, getting just enough to keep my strength up for the next battle, never quite
falling far enough behind to give up and wither away. All I had was someday, and a heart full of
tattered hopes.
      Of all the competitions, chess provided the ultimate arena for our intellectual sparring. The
chessboard lurked atop the nightstand between our beds. It was a dime-store variety, with run-
of-the-mill plastic black and white pieces on a folding black and red board. The Ben Franklin
store sold it to me at a very reasonable price. Checkers came with it, too, but we only used them
as markers on a couple of occasions when a transmogrified pawn required that two queens of a
color exist on the board at the same time.
      Once it had been set up, the board was in play at all times. It took a couple of days to
establish ground rules for a game played over long periods of time, but it ran smoothly ever
after. I had to learn proper chess notation so that we could keep track of our moves, which Ish
was glad to teach me. Even though that would have been sufficient, we kept aside a few of each
color of checkers which we used as a rough shorthand notation, to make the situation easy to
assess at a glance. I don't doubt it was mostly for my benefit. One black checker beside the
board meant it was black's move, one red checker for white's turn. A second black checker
would signify black was also in check. Three denoted checkmate, four was stalemate. After
checkmate, the loser reset the board and made the first move.
      Each day I'd come back from supper, study the board, and make my move. Ish always came
back from studying late in the evening. Frequently I was out studying or socializing, so he made
his moves in my absence. But on those occasions when I was in the room, he would enter, greet
me, deposit his books, and pause by the board. He'd stand there for a moment or three, thumb
under jaw and forefinger on upper lip, as if whispering secret maneuvers to his hand. Then, with
a measured but decisive stroke, he would make the move I'd been dreading for hours. After that,
he'd mark the move on our scorecard and turn his back on the game until the next evening.
      I always feigned indifference, but immediately after he collected his shaving kit and headed
for the bathroom I'd scamper up to the board and review the damage. For as long as I felt safe,
I'd pore over the situation, fixing the scene in my memory, until some hint of sound from the
hallway sent me scurrying back to my bed or desk. Soon after, Ish and I would retire for the
night. While he slept fitlessly, I'd spend a half hour or so plotting my next move against the
ceiling tiles above my bed, which I'd subtly marked along the edges with just enough grey pen to
evoke a chessboard pattern in the dimness. Sleep usually overtook me somewhere between
strategy number four and desperate ploy number eight. I'd reconfirm my plan the next afternoon
with the benefit of being able to examine the board, and then commit the move to paper. Repeat
for four semesters.
      Ish's ability to outpace me extended beyond the realm of sports, too. Hell, when he wanted
to the man could grow his hair faster than I could. I decided at the end of my freshman year to
let my hair grow long. When we returned at the beginning of sophomore year, Ish apparently
decided he'd do the same thing. I was already shaggy, with a three-month lead on my roommate,
who had been recently trimmed. Ish's hair still reached shoulder-length before mine did. By the
end of the school year, he had a neat, professional-looking, sleek ponytail to show for his
efforts. I had a ponytail too, but it was dry and bleached at the ends, and frequently it pulled
loose to frizz out like a halo around my head. I came to the realization that I wasn't meant for
such hairstyles and snipped it all off in the spring, but Ish still maintains his ponytail to this day.
It's a ridiculous thing to feel competitive about, I know, but somehow I can't help feeling he
showed me up in this field as well.
      My quest to one-up the man expanded into an ever-widening arena of topics. I took every
opportunity to probe him for any weakness. I'd throw out history questions in the middle of
conversations. I brought back math riddles from my classes. And papers were always an
occasion to test his vocabulary. I'd never dream of asking him anything I didn't know myself, but
if there was a particularly good word, I'd innocently ask him for a definition.
      "Hey, Ish?"
      "Yes, Dale?"
      "Eudaemonistic--any idea what that means?"
      "What are you reading?"
      "Nietzsche, hmm. [Footnote: Naturally, Ish pronounced the philosopher's name correctly,
saying "Neats-schuh" (or thereabouts) instead of the typical American "Neechie." I felt bad
about it but continued to say Neechie myself, even though I knew better. I'd tried, for a couple of
days, but gave up after my tenth conversation that went: Them: "What are you studying?" Me:
"The philosophy of Neats-schuh." Them: "Who?" Me: "The German philosopher. You know,
The Will to Power, Beyond Good and Evil, the guy who the Nazis said justified their cause."
Them: "Umm ..." Me: "People usually say Neechie." Them: "Oh! Neechie!" Me: "Yeah,
Neechie ..." Ish, of course, knew better.] What's the context?"
      "He's talking about pessimism." I read, "'Critique of pessimism to date.-- Resistance to
eudaemonistic considerations as the last reduction to the question: what does it mean? The
reduction of growing gloom.--' and so on."
      He pondered for a moment, mouthing the word whisperingly to himself. "Eudaemonistic
      I turned to the side and pretended to be absorbed in rearranging the pillows supporting me,
hoping he wouldn't see my smile. Surely I had him this time. But no ...
      "It's a philosophy, more or less utilitarian in style, except more personal. A morality where
personal happiness and well-being are considered the ultimate goal. In this context, I'd guess
that Nietzsche is saying that people are becoming disillusioned with the cliche, 'The meaning of
life is to be happy.' Does that fit?"
      Damn! It'd taken me ten minutes and a dictionary to work out that paragraph. "Yeah, that
sounds about right. Thanks, Ish."
      Every now and again I could stump him with a word, but it was rare. Desultory, for
instance, which means sluggish or aimless. Ish thought it was closer in meaning to derogatory--
expressive of low opinion. It's an understandable confusion, as sluggish and aimless are
generally derogatory terms. I wouldn't have known the difference myself, if my English 101
professor hadn't corrected it in one of my papers. "Pleonasm" got him, too, because of its
obscurity. It's basically a fancy word for redundancy: using more words than necessary to
convey the intended meaning. "There was a great big huge bug crawling across the ceiling!"
illustrates pleonasm. Ish stumbled over surfeit as well, perhaps because it sounds so similar to
forfeit. Honestly, I was surprised that he didn't know surfeit means, among other things,
overabundance. Just on a whim I threw it at him, having failed with several others that particular
      The search for vocabulary challenges led me unwillingly but resolutely into the realm of
difficult literature. Tough books provide stockpiles of verbal ammunition. I read Joyce,
Faulkner, Pynchon, Nabokov, Eco, and anyone else who wrote the literary equivalent of high-
fiber bran muffins. They gave me such gems as chiaroscuro, palimpsest, sartorius, epaulet,
syzygy, agnosia, and unctuosity. Most of those words Ish had a good sense of, if not the exact
definition, though on occasion I won the contest. But it only took one recitation for my
roommate to make the word a part of his functional vocabulary.
      Frequently he'd work it into casual conversation later in the week. The evening after the
Nietzsche question, for example, I ran across him in the Wilder mail room after dinner. His
girlfriend Mirriam was with him.
      Mirriam was nearly as bad as Ish. Beautiful, cultured, brilliant, genuinely nice: Jackie
Kennedy meets Marie Curie meets June Cleaver. Like her beau, she was a double-degree
student, majoring in Mathematics and Violin, a grand accompaniment to his Physics,
Neuroscience, and Piano. In high school Mirriam had been a more-than-capable gymnast, and
though she no longer competed, she still stretched and flopped and acrobatted now and again. I'd
occasionally walk into our room to find her doing a handstand against the wall, a book spread
out beneath her for studying while she balanced.
      She and Ixthyaki were perfect for each other.
      Somehow, though, I never reacted to her quite the same way I did to my roommate. Maybe
Mirriam was just a touch more human, slightly less godlike. She could be a little less formal at
times, occasionally throw out a sarcastic wisecrack, something for which Ish never seemed to
have the need. Sarcasm rates too close to a complaint for Ish to ever make use of it. But most
likely my tolerance for Mirriam was based upon her being a woman. Whatever instinctive drive
made me raise my hackles and challenge Ish whenever I was given the opportunity just didn't
kick in around her, generally. For the most part I liked Mirriam, though I would have been
hesitant to call her a friend. No way in hell would I have considered dating her. I would have felt
entirely outclassed, and while that on its own wouldn't be so horrible, the knowing that I felt
inferior would have quickly driven me nuts. In a place where we all knew everyone was worthy,
I would have been ashamed to admit my feelings of unworthiness. And that shame would have
been unbearable. Such is the over-analytical dilemma of an Oberlin mind. There's never to be
found a simple excuse for a relationship not working out. It has to be intellectual, abstract,
twisted, and far removed from emotion, thus making your rejection of them (or their rejection of
you) as painless as figuring out a tip after a medium-sized dinner party. Which is to say,
emotionally gentle but still far more complicated than it should be:
      "Let's see, the total is thirty-five forty. What should we leave for tip?" A very red-eyed
Leon flicked his gaze around the table. We were at Denny's, the closest 24-hour restaurant to
Oberlin, located about twenty minutes north by car on Highway 58. The Dunkin Donuts was
technically about 300 feet closer to campus, but it didn't really count as a restaurant. After
several hours of drinking, cigarettes, loud music, and louder conversations, a man wants a salty,
greasy, fried concoction of meat, potatoes, and eggs with buttery toast on the side. No donut is
going to cut it.
       Manny furrowed his brow. "Uhh, let's see. You want to get ten percent and then add half to
it ... or, uh, get ten percent, cut it in half, and then, uh, multiply by something. Uh, three, I
think." Manny looked worse than Leon. He was slouched so low in the booth that his chin was
nearly level with the table top. From appearances, on this night he'd gone through more cups of
beer than the average bear, his noble Manuel aspect indefinitely repressed by alcohol, with the
jester side fading fast, too.
       "Really?" Ginevra asked. "I just get twenty percent and then round down a little."
       "How do you find the twenty percent? One tenth times two or divide by five? Or multiply
by point two?" Seth asked. He seemed frightfully alert for five-thirty in the morning. No man
should have such resilience. But he was driving, so it's just as well he was alert. Seth and I were
the only ones among the social group who had cars, and mine spent most of the time doing a
brilliant half-ton paperweight impression. The piece of junk invariably broke down within a
week or two of my arrivals at Oberlin. Then it just wasn't a priority to fix the thing until I
needed it again to go home for Christmas or summer vacation, at which point my parents would
wire the money to make the necessary repairs. This left Seth as the sole means of escape from
Oberlin during the school year.
       Ginevra pondered his question. "Usually I divide by ten, times two, you know? If the
number's round enough, I just do the whole thing in my head."
       "I always divide by seven," I said.
       Five sets of eyes swiveled to regard me as if I'd just removed my nose and used it to scratch
my temple.
       "Seven?" said Seth's friend Katryn. She had met up with us at the end of the Keep party and
accompanied us on this foraging journey. So far she'd been mousely-quiet in her cameo role, but
this weirdness drew her out of her shell. The scent of heresy does that to some people. "Why
       "Well, because it works."
       Seth seemed intrigued. "Eight is twelve and a half percent, seven would be more than that.
Six is more than fifteen, because six and fifteen is ninety. Seven gives us one--carry the three--
and four--fourteen and change. It's a little short, but pretty close. Seven's not a very friendly
number to divide, though."
       "I just round to the merest nulti- ... uh, nearest multiple of seven. It's close enough to figure
something like a tip. Who cares if it's fifteen cents too high or too low? We owe five bucks, by
the way. Just under a dollar apiece. I dare you to come up with fifteen percent of thirty-five forty
faster with any of the other methods."
       "Still," Leon said, "I hate to leave less than fifteen percent. It's like an insult. So we should
make it a buck each."
       Manny disagreed. "But you're not really supposed to pay tip for sales tax. Before tax the bill
was closer to thirty-three. So five is fine."
       Ginevra said, "I've never heard that before. What if she doesn't know that? She'll think we
short-changed her."
       "The whole point's moot," Seth said. "She did a really good job putting up with all of us.
She deserves twenty percent."
       "Yeah," Ginevra said.
       "No!" Manny argued.
       "Is that with or without tax?" I asked.
      "Then it's a simple divide by five, and viola!" Seth continued, apparently oblivious to the
rest of us.
      "Or you could divide by thirteen and multiply by two and a half, maybe?" Katryn teased,
unexpectedly. She gave me a glance out of the corner of her eye, it seems now, that may have
signaled something. Like she was waiting expectantly to see if I maybe recognized her behind
the unfamiliar mortal coil of this lifetime. Or maybe she was just heavy-lidded with sleep. At the
time I certainly was, so I forgot about the look.
      I was about to formulate a reply, when Manny launched a conversation grenade: "Hey
Martin, what would Ish do?"
      "Yeah!" Leon said. "What would Ish do?"
      "Tell us!" Ginevra cheered.
      I sat back and closed my eyes, channeling my inner frustrations.
      "Ish?" Katryn asked.
      Seth leaned close to her and whispered conspiratorially, "His roommate. Check this out."
      Manny said, "The guy's completely nuts. Totally out of control, man. He's got his CD
collection organized in chronological order, by, like, the birth date of the artist. He keeps his
socks sorted his drawer from light to dark, separate rows for argyles and other types. And he's so
clean that every time he takes a shower it's the stall that comes away cleaner."
      "Yeah!" Leon said. "Did you know Ish has never even heard his alarm clock? He wakes up
on his own ten minutes early and shuts the thing off a fraction of a second before it's supposed
to ring. They say if he ever misses he'll give up all his possessions and walk the word in shame
for a decade."
      Ginevra, ever the respectable RC-type, came to his defense. "He's very nice, really. And
really smart. It's just that he's a little too, um-"
      "Anal retentive?" Manny suggested.
      "Obsessive-compulsive?" Seth added.
      "Fidel Castro, Junior?" asked Leon.
      Ginevra harumphed. "I was going to say, 'a little formal.'" She tried to fight back the smile
peeking from behind her cloudy exterior, but the sunshine burst forth. "Though I guess any of
those will do!"
      These things they said about my roommate were in no way true. My friends knew that,
somewhere deep down inside, but if you asked them they'd swear they were telling the truth.
What could have possibly given them such strange impressions?
      I opened my eyes, and they fell silent. "For starters," I said, "Ish would never quibble over
how much tip to give. By inclination, he naturally prefers to round up to the nearest five dollars
just to make sure it's covered adequately. He's generous to a fault, you see. Fifteen percent is
nowhere near acceptable, either. Bad waiters get twenty, maybe twenty-five. A good waiter can
earn up to sixty cents on the dollar by being prompt and courteous. And he always figures his
gratuity after tax, naturally.
      "To determine the final, pre-rounding percentage rate, Ish uses a highly detailed sliding
scale. It begins with the number of seconds it takes for the waitress to introduce herself, based
on a standard deviation around the one minute mark, with penalty time added if the waitress
doesn't mention her name, doesn't smile, silverware is missing, or there are food spots on
anything. But it's not until the food orders are placed that the true test begins. Once the drinks
arrive, he uses an intricate notation based on the positions of the fingers of his left hand to keep
track of the amount of time between a glass reaching the two-thirds empty mark and the time a
refill is offered, and from there until the refill is presented.
      "Ish has a weird sort of photographic memory, you see. It works for the physical position of
his own body parts. He can remember within a tiny fraction of an inch exactly how he was
posed and make fine adjustments over time. That's how he ticks off the seconds, but slowly
moving his fingers; after years of practice he can move each finger at a constant pace and knows
exactly how long it takes to move certain distances. If he's ever interrupted, he can snap back
into his original position immediately, so he can eat or gesture while still maintaining an
accurate count.
      "With his left foot, he runs a countdown until the food arrives. That's a pretty simple task,
which is why he uses his least accurate limb. His right foot monitors extraneous requests, such
as condiments or extra napkins."
      "Wow ..." Katryn said. "That is nuts."
      I promptly corrected her. "That isn't even the half of it! Ish uses his right hand for more than
all the others combined. Since his other limbs are occupied, he uses it to eat, drink, to use the
napkin, and he even knows a way to hold the knife and fork in the same hand like big chopsticks
to cut his food. It takes short, quick bursts, sort of like a snapping motion, but with two or three
swipes he can have a steaming, bite-size morsel waiting for consumption.
      "In between bites, Ixthyaki keeps an independent count of the frequency of check-up visits,
the delivery time of a doggie bag, the delivery time of dessert, the arrival of the final bill, and
the time it takes to process payment and return with change.
      "While he's doing all of this you wouldn't even know it's happening. Ish maintains perfect
poise, good posture, and a relaxed aura at all times. He'll lead an intelligent and engaging
conversation about anything from politics to nuclear physics, and all this time the analysis is
going on in the background. With his perfect physiological memory, he can handle any
interruption without breaking stride.
      "When it's all over, the guy does a mental inventory of the whole dining experience based
on the final position of his extremities. Then the human abacus calculates the appropriate tip
percentage to three decimal places, on a scale between twenty point three-five-six to fifty-nine
point four-two-one. I don't know why he doesn't just round it out. Ish insists that he needs to be
fair, but I suspect it has more to do with his relishing an opportunity to do long division. He
loves the stuff, you see. Does it in his head, just for fun. Sorta like some guys can have a
conversation with you while waving around a dumbbell, Ish does the same thing with long
division. The crazy thing is, if you've got a percent you don't even need to do long division to
get the tip, you just have to multiply. But he works it in there somewhere; I'm not sure how.
Some speculate that it's a matter of inverting first, then dividing by that number. Seems a waste
of computing power to me, but it's not my life, so who am I to complain?
      "So after the percentage has been figured out, then Ish calculates the tip--after taxes, like I
said. I think he really does use his body like an abacus to do the math. Only he's scary-fast.
Twitching fingers and blinking eyelids add and multiply so quickly it's more like a sudden
shiver. Just a quick 'brr,' and he's done. 'Are you cold?' I asked him once after a meal. 'No,' he
said, 'just figuring out the tip.' I tell ya, it's the darndest thing.
      "Finally, after all the heavy math has been worked out, he rounds up to the nearest five
dollars, and that's what he leaves."
     Peals of laughter came from the crowd. My regular comrades applauded my performance.
Katryn seemed a little skeptical. "Um, if he's going to round to the nearest five dollars, why
bother working everything out to the thousandths first? There's no point in starting with five
significant figures if you're going to end up with only one," she said. "If he's so logical, he
should know that."
     "I asked him about that once," I countered. "And you know what he said? He told me,
'Dale'--he always calls me Dale, you see--'I thought about that, but if I didn't make sure they got
every penny they deserved, what kind of person would I be? It's only a short, slippery slope from
there to the downfall of society. At some point you have to say, like our esteemed former
President Harry S. Truman, "The buck stops here!"' That's what he said, I shit you not. Then he
looked at me with those somber eyes of his, and he winked. And he said to me, 'Actually, the
meal would hardly be fun if I didn't.'"
     "And you live with this guy?"
     "Yeah, well, mostly he's not so bad. Like Ginevra said, he is a really nice guy. Just a bit
odd. Some days it's downright entertaining."
     "Still, I don't think I'd want to live with him."
     "I fought that at thirst--I mean, thought that at first--Katryn, but now, with all these stories I
have to tell, I can honestly say I wouldn't trade him for the world."
     Sometimes I wonder, did those words really come from my mouth? How is that possible?
But on my more magnanimous days I can understand, there were moments when I really did
appreciate the guy. With Ish far away and his stories winning me such acclaim among my
friends, it was hard to hold a grudge against my roommate. At almost any time, grudges were
hard to hold against Ish. His good-natured helpfulness; his non-judgmental interest in
everything; his soft-spoken, always intelligent conversation. He wasn't by any means a wide-
eyed innocent--he was just naturally good and lived cleanly, and he never found the need to
become skeptical. It's frustrating as hell dealing with a guy like that, but you can't hold a grudge.
He wasn't saccharine enough to be distasteful. He never lorded his qualities over anyone else
such that you could be resentful. But neither was Ish so completely blind to my challenges that
he was an unwitting sap who just kept winning by dumb luck. I badly wanted to portray him that
way, for some reason. The temptation is there even now. I, the cunning one, worked out strategy
after strategy, master plan after master plan, while Ish just sort of bumbled through and blindly
met all the challenges, somehow. But the truth is, he was aware of--and a match for--everything
I threw at him.
     The fable of the tortoise and the hare comes to mind. I've seen a number of variations, but
the premise is roughly the same. There's a race between a turtle and a rabbit, an inane enough
idea. I can't even imagine why the tortoise would have said yes. In any case, the race begins, and
in an instant the hare is out of sight before the tortoise has even moved. But somewhere along
the way, the hare gets distracted. In the official version, I think he stops to take a nap, but other
remakes have him stopping to flirt, show off, or spend his time coming up with hare-brained
(pun intended, of course) ways to cheat when a flat-out sprint would have clearly worked much
better. Meanwhile the tortoise plods along slowly but persistently against all odds and
eventually wins the race.
     For the longest time, I thought I was the hare. I couldn't understand what foolishness I must
be perpetrating to continually lose to the tortoise. After all, I'm intelligent, capable, confident in
my abilities, well-read, a quick learner, able to pick up most skills with relative ease. Only very
rarely do I find myself forced to give up, incapable of reaching my goal. So it was with some
guilt that I found myself preparing for challenges ahead of time, doing things like practicing
card games before introducing them to Ish, training myself in darts at the 'Sco before throwing
down my gauntlet, and the like. It felt like cheating. It reminded me of the hare's efforts to bog
down the tortoise, and I knew that couldn't be right, that I must be somehow distracting myself.
But in the meantime I kept losing, so I kept up my preparations, even if it did feel like cheating.
I never cheated outright--there wouldn't have been any satisfaction in that. What's the point in
knowing you can run a mile faster than someone else can run two miles, if you know they still
run two miles faster than you? Crossing the line first is not the same as besting the competition.
Short of cheating, I did everything I could to give myself a tactical edge in fair combat, but Ish
continued to foil me repeatedly.
     That's why I wanted to believe I was the hare. I could have won, I thought. I was still the
better man. It was just that somehow the methodical plodding of the Ixthyaki-tortoise was
turning my best-laid plans against me.
     Maybe I didn't see the truth at first because Ish made it look so effortless. He didn't act like
he was streamlined for speed, outfitted for battle, whirling dervishly into every contest. But he
was; the man was all hare. I was the tortoise: slow and plodding, and methodically challenging
him to race after race, convinced I'd win the next time around. Determined to come out ahead
eventually. Whatever race slow and steady won, it wasn't one I tried to run. If anybody else had
known the lengths to which I went, surely they would have laughed in my face at my ridiculous
obsession. Except for my friends, who would have tried to stop me from making a fool of
myself, and then laughed in my face at my ridiculous obsession. But it was only Ish and I; I
wasn't going to give up and Ixthyaki wasn't going to turn down a challenge. Even now I don't
know his mind, probably never will. Did he feel honor-bound to accept? Was he just happy to
keep me on stable ground? (I was frequently moody and uncooperative around him when not
enmeshed in a duel, but the spirit of gamesmanship always made that fall away. Ish may not
have noticed, but I certainly did.) Was he such a master sportsman that he never turned down a
challenge, addicted, almost, to the thrill? Did he relish the victory, deep down in some
impeccably concealed corner of his impeccably unflappable demeanor? Maybe he just enjoyed
my company, poor as it was. I like to think, perhaps, that he felt I was keeping him sharp, giving
him challenges he would not otherwise have. But perhaps I give myself too much credit as a
good influence, put too much stock in this belief as a salvation from otherwise damning
     Outside the dorm room, Ish ranked right up there under workload and lack of a relationship
as a primary complaint. My friends didn't circulate much with Ish's crowd, so they took my word
as approximate truth. Naturally, with sympathetic ears all around me, I exaggerated from time to
time. This eventually turned into the "What would Ish do?" stories, which became quite popular.
These, obviously, my friends didn't really believe. It's funny, but eventually there became for us
two Ishes, bound together in a super-hero type dichotomy. One of them was my mild-mannered
roommate who could be seen in the hallways, said pleasant things when visitors were in the
room, and spent a lot of time in the library doing studious Oberlin-type things. Call him Ixthyaki
Kent, if you will. This Ish Kent was always treated nicely and in a friendly fashion by my
compatriots. Meals were shared, philosophies debated, movies were watched. They knew he
was okay. In his presence, he was treated with respect. Even without his presence, any of us
would have spoken well of him to strangers. Ixthyaki Kent was just another brilliant and
remarkably well-adjusted Obie.
      But among my circle of friends, we also knew his secret identity. We understood that when
those of us in the inner circle were gathered together, the innocuous Ixthyaki Kent turned into a
superhuman cyborg nemesis, the bane of my existence. It wasn't really him. We knew that. He
was just the seed that started the stories, the spark upon which we based an entire character. Of
course it wasn't right. We were unfair, mean, juvenile. Our imagination was never really
directed at the actual flesh-and-blood Ixthyaki. I can swear with the utmost confidence that
when it came down to it, every one of my friends genuinely liked the guy. If anything, they put
themselves in awe of him by attributing such abilities to one man.
      In the end, this excuses nothing. It mortifies me to think Ish may one day find out about
this. Even he would have to be offended by our behavior, and certainly he deserved far better by
us than he's gotten. But if the issue does ever arise, I expect he'll have an easier time forgiving
and forgetting than I will. That's the kind of man Ixthyaki Ramanaharayanan is.
      He was also the kind to write in magnets on our fridge:
              From emerald touch
              in dark winter night
              springs eternal hope
      I guess I'm counting on something like that from him.
      If there was anything Ish showed me, it was that time and again he would surprise me with
his abilities. He could be counted on to exceed expectations, supersede the norm, rise to the
occasion, and impress the hell out of everyone.
      Take that evening in the mail room when I met him and Mirriam, soon after our
conversation about Nietzsche and "eudaemonistic."
      "Hi, Dale. How are you?"
      "Doin' fine. You?"
      "I'm great, thanks."
      Mirriam and I exchanged greetings as well.
      I said, "Hey, I was just about to head over to Stevenson for a bite to eat. You had dinner
      "Yes, we just ate. We're actually on our way from Stevenson to the library to study
      Mirriam quipped, "It's a tough job, but somebody's gotta teach those intestines how to
      "Did they have anything good tonight?" I asked. Never let it be said I'm not an optimist;
after a year and a half I still bothered to maintain this futile hope.
      Mirriam grimaced. "Stay away from the Swedish meatballs."
      "That's a given. Anything else?"
      Ish gave his synopsis: "The cheese quesadillas were good, though I suppose cheese
quesadilla is a bit of a pleonasm, isn't it? But it might be a lengthy wait, the line was long and
desultory. The specialty line was much quicker--if you've a taste for them, liver and onions were
surfeit. At least, that's what I think it was. It was difficult to determine, though, because the
palimpsest name card was barely legible and the skulch was dark and heavily wuzzled."
      For a moment, I looked at the man in confusion. That was much closer to a complaint that I
had ever heard spill from his lips. It would have been no less odd if he'd spoken to me in
German. For all I knew, some of those words might have been German.
      But then it gradually sank in. Pleonasm, desultory, surfeit ... those were his vocabulary
words for the week. Unbelievable! Not only was he throwing those words back in my face, he
used all of them in one breath. And what was this business with wuzzle and skulch? We'd never
mentioned either of those words before. I looked them up later. Wuzzle means to mix. Skulch is
junk. If I didn't know my roommate so well, I would have sworn he'd thrown them in just for
spite. But with Ish, that just wasn't possible.
      Mirriam may have blinked once or twice, but it was clearly more out of surprise than
confusion. It was obvious she understood what he was talking about. Yet again I was reminded
why she and I weren't really friends.
      Ish merely smiled at me with the innocence of a fourth-grader who'd just finished spelling
dyspeptic. He waited patiently for me to give him the next word. But then ... for a flash of a
moment ... was that the barest hint of a wink, or just a twitch? A fraction of a degree, just the
vaguest suggestion of a muscle tightening? It couldn't be. No way.
      They waited silently for me to say something.
      "The, um, quesadillas sound great. I'm sure they're worth the wait--they're delectable."
Delectable? Not nearly good enough. Think, man! I glanced at my watch, buying time. "Well,
ah, I should be going, before they run out." All I could see was Ish's bright grin. I pulled myself
up, rallied my forces. Everything within me mustered for one parting shot. "Thank you for the
      I was so focused on the guy I could see his pupils dilate. He inhaled slowly and deeply. Did
I have him? Could I possibly faze the guy? Even if I didn't throw him off balance, I'd be able to
tell if he didn't know the word and was trying to cover.
      Ish blinked, smiled more broadly. "Not at all, Dale. We're more than happy to provide you
with that brief sketch of the dining options."
      Damn! Double damn! My shoulders fell. My spirits drooped accordingly. "All right.
Seeya." I managed a halfhearted lifting of my hand as I shuffled past them, defeated.
      "Good evening, Dale."
      "Bye, Dale!" Mirriam said.

      As my quintaphone search continued, I focused less on the short ones and began to spend
more time looking for lengthier versions.
      Miss was the first--and for a long time, the only--four-letter quintaphone we found.
Eventually a few others surfaced, along with a few additional three-letter ones. Were there any
longer words, I wondered? Could I find a five-letter quintaphone? The challenge drew me into a
frenzy of sampling and note-taking. I uncovered all kinds of quartaphones, but no quintaphones.
That's when I started keeping track of the near misses, as well. I'd figured my best bet was to
find words that began and ended with double consonants, the vowel lodged in the middle.
Consonant blends, I think they're called: ch and sh, br and str. The 2-1-2 combo seemed like the
best place to start. Chimp-champ-chomp-chump-chemp. No chemp. Cl*ck? No cleck. Cl*nk?
No clenk. It eventually became apparent to me that there was a relative dearth of E words. This
struck me as odd, since E is supposed to be the most commonly used letter in English. Maybe
it's just that "eck" isn't a common sound in English, and many of the 2-1-2 words end in ck.
Maybe it's just the random sampling I tried--my mind just naturally prefers and selects certain
combinations. Whatever the case, quartaphones appear to be missing the E variant more than
any other vowel, and that seems strange to me indeed.
     No matter how I tried, I couldn't find a quintaphone with more than four letters. There were
a few four-letter quintaphones that could be extended by adding an "s" or "es" to the end, but I
would have none of that, despite Seth's arguments. I took to skimming the dictionary, looking
over notes from my classes, browsing books at random in the library in hopes of stumbling
across the prize. But the elusive five-letter solution would not show its face.
     As time passed, my hopes grew dimmer. After the initial burst of inspiration, two weeks
went by in which I found nothing new at all. The calm of resignation began to set in. To freshen
things up, as a twist on my original theory I tried finding sets which could also make use of the
letter Y. I guess you could call them hexaphones, or sexaphones, or super-quintaphones. I just
figured they're bonus points. Sort of like Yahtzee. If you get five of a kind with five dice, that's a
Yahtzee, the hardest combination to get in the game. It's worth fifty points, more than you can
get from any other combination. But if you happen to roll a second Yahtzee later in the game
and can use the numbers in another box, then you get a Yahtzee bonus of 100 points. This is
marked in a separate box, outside the normal realm of play. That's how I felt about any y-words
I found. They were still quartaphones or quintaphones, just with an extra y-bonus. For example,
the m*st series could also include Myst, if you accept the name of a popular computer game as a
valid find.
     Having the y-bonus is exceptionally rare. Only a handful out of the more than 70
quintaphones and quartaphones I've discovered get one. There were a few more words that
matched three vowels and a Y, but that was stretching things too far for me. The main problem
with the y-bonus is that the Y generally sounds too much like an I and thus both rarely exist.
     Almost unintentionally, I stumbled across a likely y-word in my introductory physics book.
Dyne: a unit of energy. That sounds just like dine, I thought. With mounting excitement, I
checked off more of the combinations. Dane. Done! (Yes!) Dune!! (Amazing!) Dene? Never
heard of it. (Sigh.) Dean, sure. Denny, of course, but no dene. Still, that was a quartaphone with
bonus points. Hope and bull-headed persistence made me pick up the dictionary anyway. And
there it was: black ink stark on white paper declaring "dene" is indeed a word. Valley, it means.
Thank goodness for the redundancy of the English language. Or rather, hallelujah for its
pleonasms, perhaps I should say. Hooray for its repetitions! Yippee for-
     For what I was looking at was an honest-to-goodness quintaphone plus. It was the first and
only one I've found. Victory was sweet that day, and I strode with helium in my shoe soles and a
smile in my spine for many hours before the excitement faded.
     The sudden find renewed my hope for more matches. Obviously, I hadn't exhausted
everything. And from then on, no word--no matter how unlikely--was going to pass unchecked
in my red-bound copy of Merriam Webster's. It was the perfect judge, I supposed: large enough
to have every word somebody might have heard of but not so large as to have obscure references
that probably shouldn't count. If you have a sizable enough dictionary, everything's a word.

     My renewed vigor brought me to browsing the magnetic poetry on our fridge in search of
more quintaphones. Preferably with more (mire-mere-mare) than (thin-then) five (fave-Féve,
our coffee shop) letters (litter-latter-letter). I'd just discovered the quartaphone p*nt (no pont)
and written it in my notebook when Ish walked in unexpectedly and caught me working on the
quest. It was mid-afternoon; characteristically he would have been studying at Mudd, so my
investigations should have been secure from his gaze.
     After my frantic scuttling and incoherent greeting, I finally took the pencil out of my mouth
and pulled myself together enough to ask a proper question. "What are you doing home so
     "My English class is reading Crime and Punishment currently, but I've read the book
before. Of course, I'm reading it again anyway and learning more from it, but the reading goes
much faster the second time."
     Ish, if I haven't mentioned before, has photographic memory. The regular kind, not the
physiological variety I described to my friends. He had no need to reread anything, ever. But of
course he always did.
     I started to hope that Ish would let my strange behavior go unexplained. Might as well hope
the Unicloud wouldn't hover dark and grey over Oberlin every other week.
     "What are you working on, Dale?"
     It crossed my mind that I could lie, say I was thinking about a poem and let it go at that. I'd
been collecting quintaphones for a month now and had managed to keep it a secret from Ish so
far. But then it occurred to me that I had a thirty-day head start on my roommate. No matter
what his brilliance, it was almost guaranteed that most of his suggestions would be words I
already had. How pleasant would that be, to be able to reply to each of his finds, "I've already
got that one. Yep, that too." Even if he did manage to add a few new words, that would only
help me increase my list, and in the meantime I'd have dozens of opportunities to tell him just
how many quintaphones I'd already found. It was beautiful.
     So I explained the concept to him. Not wanting to spoil the fun of watching him slowly
cover the ground of my old discoveries, I only threw him b*g as an example. Quartaphones I
described as well, giving him blind-bland-blond-blend but no blund. I figured I'd let him find a
couple of three-letter words before setting up the real challenge of finding the longer five-letter
     While Ish contemplated my explanation, someone came a tip-tap-topping at our bedroom
     "Come in!" I shouted.
     A blond woman who I'd never seen before walked into the room. Something about her
struck me as familiar, but ...
     "Hey, Martin," she said.
     "That shocking, is it?" She twirled atop Ish's Persian carpet like it was a Parisian runway.
     "Oh my god! What did you do to your hair?"
     "I bleached it."
     "Well, yeah. But why would you--what were you--I mean, wow! Weird."
     With black hair and blue eyes, Ginevra normally looked vaguely like Snow White. In
general, my friend's face was more angular, her nose longer and pointier than the cartoon beauty,
her skin darker and more freckled, but the overall resemblance was there. It was only physical,
of course; she may have looked like a Disney character, but she talked more like a veteran
barmaid than someone suited for a children's story. I'd always loved Ginevra's coloring and was
truly shocked to see Snow White turned into Vanna White. Had I been unaccustomed to her
regular beauty, I might have found her striking, but knowing the difference I thought the change
was for the worse. Over the next few weeks the look grew on me, but this first glimpse left me
appalled. All I could see was bright, bright yellow.
     Ginevra said, "I just felt like trying something different, you know? It seemed like it might
be a little shocking, so I considered easing in with something blander, like auburn, just to see
what it was like. But then I figured, why not go all the way? It's sorta yellow, though. I'll
probably try again in a week to try to get it blonder. Closer to platinum, you know."
     "Really? Huh. It's just so bright already," I said, too much in shock to keep the
disappointment out of my voice.
     "You don't like it, then?"
     "It's just weird. I'll probably get used to it. But your dark hair suited you so well, it just
seems like a shame to mess with it. I can't help thinking of a song--how's it go? Something
about 'You put my tender heart in a blender.' I'll get used to it, I'm sure. It's just weird. Very
     "Whatever. If you don't like it, you don't like it. I'm not sure I like it--it's just fun, you
know? I just wanted to try something different. I've gotta go show Elana now. Later. Seeya Ish!"
     Clearly annoyed at my lack of appreciation, she dashed out the door. I knew she was
probably upset by my reaction, but I couldn't help feeling like somehow I'd been hurt more than
she had. Ish seemed inclined to disagree with me. He said, "I thought her hair looked quite nice.
Maybe not exactly natural, but ... fun. A change of pace like that can be invigorating."
     "Yeah, well, I think it was a blunder. I liked it the way it was," I grumped. "What were we
talking about before?"
     "Oh yeah. I explained everything, I think. Did you have any questions?"
     "No, I think I understand the concept."
     "Well, if you run across any, let me know."
     Ish nodded.
     I fumed about Ginevra. What kind of blinders was she wearing, that she thought the new
color looked good? I wished she'd let me take a picture beforehand, to remember the old her by
until it grew back. And go even blonder? God forbid!
     If that wasn't bad enough, somehow I'd gotten that silly song stuck in my head. Except I
didn't know all the words, so all I could do was repeat that one line again and again: "Put my
tender heart in a blender--something something something, I don't know the words." Indeed.
     "I think I have one."
     "Already? What is it?"
     "Would blander-blender-blinder-blonder-blunder be a quintaphone?"
     Catching on already? Damn the man! "Yeah, sure," I snapped.
     "Did you have that one already?" It was an innocent question, but the words felt weighty.
     "Um ..." The set slowly sank into my consciousness. Blinder? That was a long word. More
than four letters. More than five. I counted swiftly on my fingers. Oh my God! It was a seven-
letter quintaphone! It was as if Columbus had set sail for the Indies and met up with voyagers
from the moon. I wanted to jump up and down that I finally had one, finally, after thirty days of
looking and-
     And I wanted to tear my hair out because Ish had done the finding. It just wasn't fair. He
didn't even know about my quest for the longest quintaphone. He could find in half a minute
what I hadn't come up with in a whole month of searching.
     "No, Ish," I sighed, "I don't think I have that one."
     "That's great! You can add this one to your list, then. I'm glad to have been able to help. I'll
let you know if I find any others."
     Which, of course, he did. Frequently. Most of them I did actually already have, a small
consolation. But Ish had won a skirmish, a battle, and the war with one single volley of
ammunition. To this day, the bl*nder series is the only quintaphone I know of which has more
than four letters. I've never told him of my now-abandoned quest, but deep inside I know the
honor and the glory are all his.
     I realized later that Ginevra and I had spoken most of the words in the series within our
short conversation, and that I had given him the bl*nd series as an example of a quartaphone.
This knowledge only made things worse. I may have contributed to his discovery, but I should
have been the one making the find in the first place. Blender had been stuck in my head, for
Pete's sake! All I needed to do was apply the same reflex analysis to that word that I'd already
applied to dozens of others that afternoon. By all rights, I should have noticed it. Given enough
time to get over the Ginevra shock, I probably would have found it. Ish just beat me to it. I'd
failed again, and he won. D'oh! indeed.
                                Major Dilemmas: Interlude
      All these stories are deep in the past. In the present, it's the tail-end of May, in the year
nineteen-hundred and ninety seven. It's a Monday, one week after commencement, to be exact.
I've mostly lost track of the days already, but America's Funniest Home Videos and Unhappily
Ever After were on last night when I took a brief respite from my trusty computer screen to
spend some time in front of a TV screen instead. From experience, that makes last night a
Sunday and by logic today must be a Monday. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to tell.
      It's late afternoon. My room is bright, comfortable. It's a nice change from the outside
world, which has been breezy, rainy, and chilly for the past week. The pools may be open for
"summer" but 60 degrees is far from swimming weather. It's not bad in long sleeves and jeans,
but considering the date it's a little disappointing. Just another reason to keep me inside, where
it's deathly quiet. Even with my stereo blasting and the TV on downstairs, I can feel the palpable
silence behind it. A house just has a certain aura when there aren't any other living beings inside
its walls. When they're there, it conveys their warmth through its structure. In an empty place,
every pop and creak is suddenly a sinister mystery. This past week, I've been sleeping with the
lights on, something I haven't done since I was six. I should say when I sleep, because sleep
itself has been elusive. I can steal little naps here and there, lying on the couch downstairs or
sprawled across my bed sideways. But as soon as I turn out the lights and position myself
properly under the covers, all I can do is think. I toss and turn, unable to get comfortable. And I
don't even know why. Well, not specifically. I understand the general situation quite well.
      Things are not good.
      I'm bored. I'm lonely. I've been abandoned by everyone I've known and loved in the last
four years. The life I've enjoyed here has ended, forever. I don't know what's next. I'm broke. I'm
stuck here, just me, myself, and my loneliness.
      Melodramatic crap. Blah, blah, blah, and like, whatever. I'm a fucking miserable whiner.
      I'd leave today, but I can't fit all my stuff into my car, so I have to wait for my parents to
show up. They aren't due for another week. They're driving up with my sister after she finishes
school, which happens this Wednesday. They're taking a day to visit relatives in South Carolina,
though, so I don't expect them until next Monday. I probably should have made arrangements to
leave sooner, but I didn't think I'd be in such a hurry to go. It might be bearable if I could get out
for a day or two, or even a couple of hours, but my car's in the shop again, waiting on parts. It's
not supposed to be ready until next Tuesday, so I can't go anywhere that my feet won't take me.
Being broke is unrelated to the car; I'm just out of money. I've got enough left to feed me for the
week and maybe catch a Tuesday night two-dollar movie at the Apollo theater, but that's about
it, so-
      So mostly I write. Bang away on a keyboard to keep myself occupied.
      Strangely, it's only because I'm so miserable that I'm actually doing something that I've
always wanted to do. Writing is in my blood. It's what I respect, it's what I find fulfilling, despite
the fact that in four years of college I don't have a complete story to show for it. For four years,
if anybody asked me what my major was, I told them philosophy. And then I always mentioned
my interest in creative writing. Every time. Yet somehow I never did take a creative writing
class, or do any actual writing. In a school of 2800 students, over half of whom are intensely
interested in creative writing, it's not so easy to get into one of the 24 open seats in the
mandatory introductory class. Especially when those classes span such a huge chunk of the M-
W afternoon time slot, a prime location for many other classes, including several courses
mandatory for my major. And then there was the H. Royden James factor. If my experience with
him was indicative of the classroom experience, I wanted to stay away from it at all costs. That
left me quite conflicted over the issue. It's not a pretty picture, to want what you fear will hurt
      Rationalizations aside, I just didn't do any writing. I kept thinking about it, started projects
dozens of times, and then a paper would come up, or I'd get a cool new computer game, or I
wouldn't feel focused enough, or eloquent enough, or inspired enough, and I'd set the work
aside. Eventually I gave it up for a lost cause, something to work on once I'd gotten out of the
hectic college schedule. Wait until I've got something beautiful and meaningful to share. Wait
until I'm organized and well-rested and I've actually got a clean house and homework done and
jobs applied for and I'm finally settled, and then I'll be ready to work.
      In the middle of all those excuses, I guess I forgot to take into account that writing really is
important to me, and that I need to make time for it. In that respect, maybe it's a good thing my
hand is being forced now, because I'm not finding it easy going. It's not the day-glo bolts from
the muse that I mentioned earlier. It's trudging, grudging labor. If I could sleep, I would. If I
could drive to the lake, I would. If I could afford the newest video game system, I'd probably be
playing it right now. Don't get me wrong--I'm very glad I'm not, I just know myself well enough
to understand what I would be doing if I could. There's useful wisdom in that, which I'm
beginning to understand.
      Related to that concept, there's an insight that came floating to me from out of the void one
day. Maybe I dreamt it, maybe I overheard it somewhere, maybe my subconscious just pushed it
to the surface. In any case, the words still ring clearly in my mind: "Ain't nobody ever locked
themselves in a room and wrote four hundred pages because things were fine."
      And it's true. If life's really good, the last thing most people would want to do is shut
themselves away for a thousand hours to work on something that's mostly in their head. You
gotta have nothing better to do (or something worse to face) before you're going to want to
devote that sort of time to being alone inside your own mind.
      So things are not good right now, but maybe that's not really such a bad situation. At least
it's giving me a damn good excuse to do something I've always wanted to do. I've still got a long
way to go, though, and there's no guarantee that anything will come of it. If the phone rings in an
hour and it's the garage telling me the car is ready, I'd still get the hell out of Dodge because,
honestly, I may be writing but I still ain't happy.
      But until that time I'll keep dredging up these memories, flitting through the playground of
my fears. Sorting, analyzing, and recording the events of the past four years. It's strange, but my
misery has made me far more productive and successful than happiness ever has.
                    Chapter the Fifth: Friends and Later Years
      Mixed up.
      That's a pretty good way to describe my junior and senior years at Oberlin. Hell, it's
probably a pretty good way to describe my life in general.
      The Greeks had a special word for the concept: metathesis. It means more literally "to
transpose" but also includes the general concept of mixing things up. Something I'm quite good
at. It's one of my skillest strongs.
      A chemical reaction constitutes metathesis, as molecules swap places with other molecules.
Other times it appears in the spoken word. Like saying "nu-kyoo-ler" instead of "nuke-lee-ar."
Bart Simpson's name comes to us through metathesis, too. "Bart" is made from the rearranged
letters of the word "brat."
      I'm very fond of this particular concept. As I said, I'm good at using it--both intentionally
and unintentionally. And not just in the spoken word, the mixing up is often metaphorical.
[Footnote: Ahh, metaphorical, the best -phorical of them all!]
      For the longest time, I suffered through life with a tang that often got tungled. In these
pages, I've done it a number of times. I can't say if it became an obsession because I did it so
much, or if I do it so much because it's an obsession. One of my earliest memories of a
transposed phrase comes from Dom DeLuise in Cannonball Run. During the credits, they
showed out-take after out-take of him stepping through a door and asking something about
fricken chickassee. Again and again: fricken chickassee, until he couldn't get the lines out at all.
I laughed right along with him until tears poured from my eyes. I didn't know what I'd just
witnessed, but I knew immediately that I loved it.
      They started showing up everywhere. Just a little tip of the slung here or a bad punch line
there, like "People who live in glass houses shouldn't stow thrones." My father occasionally
claimed, "I'd rather be a smart feller than a fart smeller." And there was the ever-popular, "I'd
rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy."
      Sometimes they'd happen by accident. Teachers would slip up, friends would misspeak. I
once got a detention in high school because I couldn't stop laughing at such a mix-up in speech
class. A nervous classmate, in giving her presentation, repeatedly referred to a "perch of
proofus" as a means of getting a mail-in rebate. After the fourth time she said it, I just couldn't
take it anymore. I laughed until I was sent into the hall for the rest of the class.
      These bits of joy are called spoonerisms. Named for a Reverend Spooner, a turn-of-the-
century religious man and educator who has been attributed these gems:
          •There is a half-warmed fish in my heart
          •Cattleships and bruisers
          •God bless the queer old dean
          •Is the bean dizzy?
          •Excuse me madam, but I believe you are occupewing my pie. May I sew you to another
      I swear to you I must be that man reincarnated. Give me enough time, and I'll put his
noteworthies to shame.
      Strangely, even though Spooner's famous gaffes involve mostly "real" words as a result, I
think sometimes it's even better if the output doesn't make any sense. Proofus? What's a
proofus? Who knows? (New hoes? Nice!) It didn't matter. The strangeness of the word, the
rhythm of its sound, the warping of reality, and the destruction of sense, all this brought me
great joy. Particularly insidious was the book, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, which lodged
itself in my brain as the Wilves of Wooloughby Chase. I don't know why; it just did. I'd find
myself repeating the phrase to myself in quiet moments as a sort of background mantra beneath
my surface thoughts. Sorta like how you can start counting, then think about something else for
a while, only to suddenly realize you're saying to yourself "four-twenty, four-twenty-one, four-
twenty-two ..."
      From more recent years, one of my personal favorite televised spoonerisms comes from the
Simpsons (naturally). When Homer asks Lisa what she does to get through the day, her response
is, "Oh, lots of things. Tai chi ... chai tea." It may be "mixed up," but it's still good advice.
      These days I tend to call spoonerisms by the much shorter nickname of "spoons." It
confuses the uninitiated sometimes, but once you know the context it's not too confusing. And it
added something a little special when the cartoon character The Tick created his battle cry of
"SPOOOOON!" I know they're not related, but the coincidence still makes me happy.
      Spoonerisms--well, any kind of confusion, really--never fail to make me laugh, and for the
longest time I figured I must have a screw loose somewhere. (Lew scroose--ha ha! See?) There
are a lot of people out there who don't get them or just don't find them funny. I can't explain why
some people like spoons and others don't. I don't even know why I find them humorous. I just
know what I like, and I like spoons.
      At some point in college my personal enjoyment of them became a quest, replacing the
failed quintaphone search. Starting junior year I shared the predilection with Dave, one of my
few philosophy major friends, and his encouragement nurtured my hobby until it grew into a
full-blown art. We started thinking them up on our own, looking for serious matches and secret
meanings. Oberlin president Dancy Nigh fascinated us. Putting on our sues and shocks in the
morning made us laugh. The hunt eventually became automatic, a reflex action. Spoons could
be lying in wait (why-ing in late) everywhere, and the best way to find them was to try every
combination of two words we could think of. Whenever anyone spoke, we'd instinctively try out
the last two words of any sentence in hopes of finding more great spoons. Spate groons. Nope,
no good. But you didn't have to use spoken conversation. All you had to do was think of any two
words. Woo turds. See?! There you have it. For finding good spoons, focusing on the quantity of
attempts seemed to be the best way. West bay. Cool!
      It was fun, although sometimes it made for strange silences in our conversations. Someone
could make a statement about a cheese platter, say, and then we would fall quiet as our mouths
simultaneously shaped out an ironically silent "please chatter."
      Most of my friends joined in the hunt eventually. A few, like Kim, never really appreciated
them. She found the concept more annoying than interesting. But almost everyone else played
along to some extent or another. Try it, you'll like it. Ike lit.

     Here's an in-depth example:
     Book in hand (The Tale of Two Cities), I traversed Harkness Bowl, en route from Spanish
house to quarter beers for pool n' darts on a Friday night. The headphones around my neck were
issuing the notes of Sledge Hammer by Peter Gabriel. I was in the company of my friends Dave
Crope and Polly Lopp, who were discussing the benefits of Ram Doubler for Polly's computer.
Polly, who had a cold, blew her nose. Meanwhile Dave searched his backpack and pulled out a
grilled cheese sandwich, giving half to Polly. She took one bite and made a face. "It tastes like
your bag," she said. In reply Dave said, "Don't bite the hand that feeds you."
     And suddenly it all became terribly, horribly funny. The kind of funny where your nose
runs and your eyes water and after a minute or two you wish you could puke so you could stop
laughing. The kind of funny where you get back two or three years that you've lost to worry and
angst and fear. The kind of funny that leaves you airy and glowing, because your laughter just
birthed an angel in heaven.
     I fell to the ground. I kicked my feet and flailed my arms, pounding the stoic earth with my
convulsing extremities, all the while giggling like a hyena on nitrous oxide. My friends looked
at me as if I'd gone mad, which I guess maybe I had, temporarily. Circumstances can do that to a
     Why all the hilarity? Because my mixed up brain had taken an expansive look at a
relatively normal situation and given me the following:
     Hook in band (Sale of Two Titties), I traversed Barkness Hole, en route from Hannish
spouse to border queers for duelin' parts on a nigh-day fright. The nedphones around my heck
were issuing the notes of Hedge Slammer, by Peter Gabriel. I was in the company of fry mends
Crave Dope and Lolli-pop, who were discussing the benefits of Dam Rubbler for Polly's
computer. Polly, who cad a hold, knew her blows. Meanwhile Dave birched his sackpack and
pulled out a chilled grease sandwich, giving half to Polly. She took bun white and fade a mace.
"It bastes like your tag," see shed. In reply save dead, "Don't fight the band that heeds you."
      Eventually I calmed enough to explain gaspingly what the hell it was I found so funny.
     "Ohhhhhh," Dave said.
     "I see," said Polly.
     "That's ... that's ... strange."
     "Very. Wheelie reared. I mean, really weird," Dave said.
     And then they were laughing, too. With tears and kicking and thigh-slapping and
everything else I'd just gone through. Polly shook silently with only the occasional gasp or snort.
Dave hyucked and guffawed mightily. I howled along with them: a wolf pack of mirth.
     Finally, we calmed enough to speak. Polly was the first to recover her tongue. "Oh my. Ow.
Martin, please don't ever notice anything that funny again!" she admonished.
     "I'm sorry. It was just there, you know? What could I do?"
     Dave said, "Maybe ease us into it, a bit at a time."
     "And slowly go mad while I'm trying to contain myself? Sure, that's what I'll do ... hey! Dial

     Mixed up applies to a lot of things from my junior and senior years at Oberlin. It's funny,
because on the surface I think of them as being better than the first two years, but the later years
were worse at the same time. See? Even that's mixed up.
     There wasn't so much one big moment of transposition, as there were lots of little shifts
over a series of months. I came back in the fall of '95 and found some things had been pulled
one way, and circumstances had pulled other things everywhere else. The main thing is the
dynamic with my old friends dissolved. Ginevra, Manny, Leon, Seth, Thanh, and I all gradually
drifted separate directions. We all stayed friends, all kept in touch with each other individually,
but somehow the whole gang rarely got together. None of this was intentional. In fact we often
talked about the good ol' days and the possibility of hanging out together in the future, but the
actual collusion rarely happened. Life progressed, disrupting the old patterns. Ginevra was in
London fall of junior year. Manny was gone in the spring, also studying abroad. Leon, Seth, and
I all found girlfriends in the fall of junior year. Leon became completely absorbed and didn't
come up for air until the nasty breakup sometime after Thanksgiving. Seth sank into his more
slowly, but he was practically invisible senior year. Both years, when they weren't aborad most
of that group lived off campus, physically separating us all further.
      And of course I contributed to the change, too. There's no real blame, no fault to be placed,
though I still feel somewhat guilty. I'm not sure why. For growing older, maybe. For not being
there for the old crew as much as I used to, or, actually, for not needing them as much as I once
did. My relationship with Kim dramatically changed things junior year, claiming a sizable
amount of my attention and introducing me to a whole new crowd of people. I had been friends
on a more casual basis with a couple of philosophy majors, including Dave and Marcus. But
starting junior year Dave became a more constant companion, also introducing me to Polly and
bringing her in as a player in our frequent card games. Finally, honors interfered with everything
during my last two semesters, cutting dramatically into the time I had to share with anyone.
      None of us, as far as I know, were unhappy. Probably none of us would have changed
anything. We were just living our lives, maybe feeling a little premature nostalgia, or something.
Maybe the feeling is over-emphasized because I miss all of them so much now, as I write.
      I still saw my old friends now and again, but mostly my days were filled with Kim, Dave,
and Polly. Sometimes Elana or Marcus. I casually adopted a number of people who Kim knew,
but I always thought of them as her friends.
      Subtle shifts were everywhere. Meals once taken in northerly Stevenson were now eaten in
Dascomb, a central-campus dorm that held the other large cafeteria, as my whole life shifted to
the other end of campus. The advent of the late-evening meal was a great boon, and I foreswore
my breakfasts in order to eat a late meal each weekday evening. It was such an incredible
addition my friends and I always referred to it as "bonus meal." This bonus may not be apparent
to the casual observer, but when you regularly stay up until three in the morning and get up at
ten, squeezing three meals into the first eight hours of the day and none into the following nine
doesn't work very well. I guess the College (or the uncreative grown-ups who ran it) expected us
to keep earlier hours. Maybe that wouldn't have been unreasonable if everyone I knew didn't
follow the same late schedule, but as it was the concept was unthinkable. [Footnote: I won't call
the officials "conservative" because that almost never applies at Oberlin. But in this case the
word probably comes closest to summing things up. However politically liberal they may have
been, a majority of the people who controlled the College were forty- and fifty-somethings who
had spent their entire lives (or at least the last 30 years) getting up early and going to bed early.
I'm sure our preferred schedule was as alien to them as their expectations were to us.] Then
again, the College seemed to possess a number of off-base expectations. The guidelines book
actually stated we were expected to get approximately ten hours of sleep a night. I think I
managed ten on weekends, but averaged only six during the week. I had friends who claimed to
get by on four. Honestly, I believe them. The guidebook also said we were expected not to do
drugs. And that "committed relationship" off-campus housing was only available for students
who considered themselves married but couldn't (i.e., gay students), but the only couples I know
who benefitted from the rule were straight and have since broken up. Rumor had it that Oberlin
was one of the hardest colleges in the nation at which to maintain an A average--apparently even
the expectation of quality was unrealistic, or just wasn't being met. But through bonus meal it
was nice to see in at least one category Oberlin was willing to bend a little on their expectations.
       More changes. Nights grew later as I finally learned that early morning classes and I don't
mix. My Friday nights were less likely to involve passing the bong and staring at a central ash
tray; instead I was more prone to pass beers around a table arrayed with a game of spades.
      Other changes came about as a function of spending time at Oberlin. I declared a major,
making Philosophy official. In the process I got myself a new (and more laid-back) advisor by
the name of Kevin Alper. He was almost the antithesis of H. Royden James. Whereas my first
advisor had been abrupt and spartan, Alper was cluttered, loquacious, and very easy going. He
had a scattered, absentminded professor air about him that was endearing. It put you at ease,
made you want to help the man. Best of all, he didn't call me son, just Martin. Well, he did once
refer to me as Dartin Molly, but that was fine. It just made me laugh, and perhaps even like him
more. And like everyone else, he did on one occasion wonder aloud whether everyone asked me
if I were related to Dalí the artist. That, too, I'd come to expect. [Footnote: Nobody ever flat-out
asked if I was related to Salvador Dalí; they all inquired whether everyone else asked.] Overall, I
was thrilled with my new advisor.
      I slowly learned what flavors of madness to expect from regular Oberlin events, like a
Harkness party, a Zeke party, or a Keep party. I learned the location of the various off-campus
houses identified normally by name: Crack house, Bug house, Ministry, Mirkwood, and the like.
Introductory courses began to blur together into one predictable experience of readings, tests,
papers, and a final. At the same time, 300-level courses gave me a true sense of what Learning
and Labor was really about. I was settling into the groove, finding my stride. The schedules of
the town stores were locked intimately into my memory. I knew where to go if my validine had
problems. And I'd learned the hard way not to see any films presented by the Independent Film
Society, who seemed determined to show movies so awful I can only imagine their ultimate goal
was a revulsion-inspired mass uprising that would lead to the destruction of the entire film
      The second half of college was less lonely, certainly. I gradually kept gaining friends, even
faster apparently than they could trickle away. That gave me more options, more things to do.
And I'd gotten past some of the neurosis that comes with the earlier years: Most of the seriously
self-destructive urges (like taking up smoking) had passed by then. With a real relationship of
my own and Ginevra far away, I put myself into a more healthy perspective regarding the
woman I had wanted so badly.
      My mental outlook as a whole gradually improved as it finally sank in that I wasn't going to
go insane. This was a serious concern in my early years, left over from high school. I
romanticized it, maybe. Every year, I'd noticed, life got progressively tougher. More homework,
more responsibilities, less leisure time. I remembered the days when they scheduled two
recesses every day where we were required to go out and play. At Oberlin I'd go for thirteen
weeks straight and not have a single moment where I didn't have some sort of deadline that I
could be addressing. The world was slowly forcing me to grow up, and I figured it was unlikely
that I could hack it. Somewhere along the line, insanity was bound to overtake me. So I really
pushed it, welcoming the inevitable. Took heavy course loads, delayed deadlines till the last
second, kept strange hours, overslept, underslept, ate horrible combinations of food, drank
ungodly amounts of Féve coffee only to take that energy and turn it into a long conversation
with myself as I crept twitchingly through the athletic fields late at night in search of a
nonexistent place where, for just one moment, the world might fall dim and silent enough not to
hurt my overwhelmed ears and eyes. I dwelled on the dark: What does it say about life, I
thought, that no matter how much of this "happiness" stuff we find along the way, we're always
born alone and afraid, and at the end of it all we're going to die and journey away alone and
afraid again, most likely in great pain as well. The last moment of almost everyone's life is
something horrible: sickness, accidents, murder, heart attacks, strokes, cancer, suicide, burning,
drowning, bleeding screaming crying horror. Waiting for us all, sometime, to be the last thing
we ever know. In between, our lives will be filled with much the same stuff, just in nonlethal
doses, all of it coated with a frosting of worry about the ickiness that hasn't even hit yet, or is
just about it hit, or might not hit at all.
     For what did I want to grow into that world? A place where it's easier to be a stranger than a
friend. A place full of movies that remind me just how happy and fulfilled I'm not. Where
everything is vaguely interesting if I think about it a little, but it's all difficult, boring, and
pointless if I really think about it. I face a world where, in a sea of four billion individuals, no
more than a handful actually know and understand the brilliant, beautiful, wonderful soul that I
am--and I them. Except that's all a sham, because I know all the wrong I've done. I could be a
hell of a lot better, and I'm one of the good people.
     It's a pretty miserable world we live in. It's a world of locks on doors and lights in the
streets, armies and police and self-defense classes, missing persons and lawsuits. All of it
struggle. All of it caused by our fellow man. That's what makes it really frustrating. The world
doesn't have to be this way; we made it the way it is. Things like disease and earthquakes are
natural phenomena, something inherent in the world we live in, that we have to deal with
because they're there. But there's no requirement that we sue each other, that we have to cheat
each other, or go to war. That's all our choice.
     And look at what we've chosen.
     All that's just scratching the surface. On a good day, I could get myself into such a funk that
Oberlin was indistinguishable from a high-security prison and the earth itself was but one of the
nine planes of hell. And it's all true, really, if you look at it in the right sort of light. Of course
there's plenty of room for other perspectives, too. But I'd focus on this, rant and rave and mutter
until I drove myself into a frenzy of dark reality where everything was a Miserable Experience
that Ends Badly. In that MEEB mindset, in that dark and unlovable mood, I couldn't understand
why my friends put up with me, didn't know why Oberlin College let me stay on its precious
campus, and couldn't believe small children weren't running in fright at the sight of me.
     Is it any wonder I didn't think I could take growing up? That I expected eventually I'd end
up insane? I had plenty of company there at Oberlin, too, where so many seemed to relish their
tenuous grasp on mental stability. I wasn't the only one pushing the limits of my tolerance.
Others may have been less intentional about the process, I don't know. But I knew a couple of
people who left the school after a few semesters. Elana struggled with depression. Most of my
friends experienced some sort of momentary emotional calamity at one point or another.
Through the campus grapevine I heard of other more serious mental breakdowns, and even one
attempted suicide.
     Seeing all that, I figured my time would come, too, and waited impatiently for it. One of
these days I'd snap, and then they could come and put me somewhere nice and quiet, and I
wouldn't have to keep working my way through the endless progression of crap that life
      All of that faded slowly, though, and was almost gone by the end of my sophomore year. I'd
still find myself struck by a dark mood now and again, but the moods never lasted long. An
evening here and there was all. Eventually I'd go to sleep in frustrated exhaustion and when I
woke up the next morning I'd feel better. Or at least I'd be too groggy to remember and too late
for class to have time to fret. As I began my junior year, even those rare nights shifted from dark
anger and worry to a milder resignation or frustrated numbness. The change is more or less a
mystery to me. The world certainly hasn't changed. All the horrible stuff is still there if I take a
moment to think about it. I guess I just don't think about it as much, don't take it as seriously. If
worry and unhappiness are guaranteed eventually, why make yourself unhappy worrying about it
ahead of time?
      Mostly I suspect my conviction that I'd go insane was based upon the assumption that I
wouldn't figure out how to be a functioning adult. The looming volume of responsibilities
scared me (and still does scare me, truth to tell), and insanity was the one loophole I could grasp
at. I suppose I don't need the escape as much anymore, as I slowly grow accustomed to taking
care of myself. There are many steps still ahead of me, but I'm becoming convinced that I can
handle them. If all the huddled masses can get by, I suppose I can, too. There's a bright side to
living in a place as crummy as this world is; I probably can't do too much to mess it up. It might
not even be too hard to improve things a little.
      So I'm trying to live in a way that encourages the world to be the way I'd like it to be. I
strive for kindness, trustworthiness, security. I won't cheat, lie, or steal. And I try my best to
avoid hurting anyone any more than necessary. When I can, I even try to spread some joy. Help
when help is needed. Listen when listening is due. Smile a lot. Share hugs when appropriate.
Mostly it's the golden rule, but bigger. Bring into this world what you want the world to be like.
      Call it the diamond rule, if you like.
      I've passed many a judgement on the stereotypical Oberlin populace, but I'll say this for
them, too: Most everyone there believes in this diamond rule, and most everyone practices it to
the utmost of their ability. That's part of what brought me here, and it's one of the aspects of the
place about which I am most proud. Naturally, we don't all agree about what we want in the
world, but at least we're trying, and I respect that tremendously.

     "Have you ever read any Mormon Nailer?" Dave asked. We were eating lunch in Dascomb
after our morning philosophy class. Elana had joined us just a few minutes before.
     "Norman Mailer? Nice!" I replied.
     "Yeah. Have you?"
     "Have I what?"
     "Read any of his stuff?"
     "Oh. No. That was an actual question? I thought you were just sharing a spoon."
     "Oh. No, I haven't. Why?"
     "I'm supposed to read one of his books for my English class. The Naked and the Dead."
     Gears inside our heads turned. The Daked and the Ned? What's daked? The Day Kid? All
right, not so good.
     "Sorry, I don't know anything about it."
     "No worries. Oh, hey! I was thinking, maybe we could stage an invasion!"
      Dave elaborated, "Sort of a cross-campus cultural reenactment. We could get German
house to march across campus and have them invade French house. Kinda like those Civil War
dealies they always have going on, except this would be from World War II. Think of it! The
blitzkrieg, the occupation, the total surprise of the entire campus."
      "Dave!" I was shocked.
      Elana, who had been silent thus far, voiced her own disapproval. "Dave, you're nuts!"
      But our friend continued, unconcerned. "And of course they'd apologize profusely, say
they'll never do it again, and then when everybody lets their guard down they'll form an alliance
with Asia house and Russia house and invade some more of the language houses. J-house,
maybe? That seems appropriate."
      I looked around the cafeteria to make sure nobody had heard him. "Dave, you'd get yourself
lynched! Just talking about it could instigate a riot. Invading French house would be bad
enough, but if German speakers took over the Hebrew house, they'd have to call in the National
Guard! Bad idea, man. It's funny, sure. But a very bad idea nonetheless."
      "No, no! Don't you see? It's just a reenactment. It'd be great. So they'd take down the
artwork from the hallways and maybe a couple of bedrooms and bring it back to German house.
A symbolic historical gesture, you see? We could play lots of Wagner and march around in the
grass out front for a while, maybe make a couple of forts in the lobby out of the lounge
      Elana was appalled. "Dave, that's ridiculous. And dangerous. That's not just a protest
waiting to happen, people would actually assault you. Really. I mean it. With fists and sticks
and rocks."
      (With fists and ricks and stocks? I thought. Or wrists and sticks and fox? Wrists and ficks
and stocks?)
      Dave refused to see reason. "It'd be all historic and educational. Bring home the horror of
war, the insanity of occupation, shake up all these poor college students just a bit. It'd give them
a small taste of what the real world's all about. And this is the brilliant part: Just when the chaos
dies down and everyone starts to figure out what's going on, that's when German house breaks
its alliance and invades Russia house, too! It'll be amazing! And the best part is, when the rest of
the campus catches on I won't even have to tell them to pretend to be the English and the
Americans. They'll just naturally start fighting back until the outnumbered Germans and Asians
lose the war. It may be metaphorical, but in a way it'll be highly accurate."
      I wanted to disagree with my friend, but the whole idea was so crazy it had a humorous
appeal. And maybe a moral lesson. "It would give them something serious to whine about for a
while. Something the whole campus could unite behind. Maybe playing the bad guy would pull
everyone together for a change."
      "Martin!" Elana gasped. "Don't encourage him! It's bad enough that we're even talking
about this. Remember, if the whole campus is united, it's because they all want to pummel you."
      "Well, it is sort of funny, isn't it?"
      "No! Not at all! The Germans have been living under the stereotype of a humorless and
oppressive people for the past fifty years. Why encourage that? And to have them oppressing the
Jews again, even in mockery, why that's just awful!"
      "Oh, come on. It'd just be a joke. Besides, the perspective could be a valuable lesson.
Nobody has perspective anymore. They don't know what hardship means. They don't have
dictators telling them what they can and cannot do, and how to live their lives. The worst most
of us face here is getting arrested for drugs or underage drinking, and we all know as long as we
don't make it obvious we don't even have to worry about that. People here get whiny when they
can't smoke in their rooms. Maybe a day of dictator-enforced solitary confinement for breaking
the rules would be good for them. Teach them a little respect for authority. Give them a sense of
how most of the world works. Maybe they'd gain a little extra appreciation for the freedoms we
have here. I guarantee you nobody here knows what an occupation is like, and I think half of
them would be horrified by an experience on this campus that didn't even involve any weapons,
let alone a real-world situation with guns and bombs and the like.
      "And another thing: People always throw around the word 'Hitler' like it's a synonym for
strict. A mean teacher is Hitler. A cop that gives them a ticket is Hitler. I've heard students be
called Hitler for not being PC enough. I hate that. They're diluting the horror of the Holocaust.
They're taking something that should be The Most Important Lesson of the Twentieth Century,
and they're turning it into a casual insult. They have absolutely no idea how bad things were.
They can't, or they'd never think the situations were equivalent. It's like calling a friend Jack the
Ripper if he accidentally scratches you. There's no sense of proportion. Hitler's too powerful a
word to be diluted needlessly. Overuse weakens its impact and its lesson. Someday it won't
mean anything at all to call somebody Hitler, and that's the day when we'll let it happen again."
      I guess I'd said a mouthful. My friends just looked at me in silence, absorbing everything I'd
said. One more idea came to me. "Dave, while we're in French house, can we drink all their
wine, too?"
      "Martin, you're just as nuts as Dave. No wonder they call you kwyjibo," Elana said,
      To tell the truth, I was probably as uncomfortable with the idea as she was. I'd never
actually do it. But at least I could appreciate it, even if that only enhanced my reputation as a
kwyjibo. Apparently, by Elana's standards, my opinions in this matter were insensitive.
Uncaring. Inappropriately disrespectful to something far too serious to be humorous. In the
politically correct world of Oberlin, I was told again and again that every viewpoint had to be
treated with respect and appreciative listening. Every potential situation that might possibly
offend or hurt or upset or disgruntle or off-put or disadvantage or even just maybe
inconvenience should be avoided at all costs. (Often I was told these things as my own opinions
were being disgruntlingly ignored--how mixed up is that?) By those standards, Dave's idea
couldn't possibly have humor. Elana's reaction isn't surprising at all. In fact, most of Oberlin
would have agreed with her that the subject wasn't just distasteful, it should have been entirely
      But honestly, it was funny. Just German house invading French house was funny. Watching
all the outraged overreactions would be hilarious. I could only imagine the Review headlines on
Friday. "The Oberlin Genocide" it would say, even though not a single person had been hurt, let
alone killed. They'd be talking about it for years. We'd probably make national television. But
honestly, we probably couldn't pull off a stunt like that without somebody actually getting hurt.
Elana was right, fists would fly, which was why we couldn't ever seriously consider doing it.
Still, it was a hilarious idea, and beautiful on so many levels.
      I continued the daydream. "Maybe we could even borrow one of the campus Daihatsus and
put a wooden shell on it to make it look like a tank. You can't have a blitzkrieg without tanks.
Some of them would have to stay down by African-American house and Third World house.
The Germans had tank forces in Africa, right?"
     Dave's eyes lit up. "Yeah! Yeah! Totally. And we could get a couple of remote control
airplanes to fly around above us. And ..."
     Elana stood up, disgusted. "I can't believe you guys are talking about this. I'm out of here.
I've got dirk to woo."
     In her haste to leave, she didn't even notice the spoonerism.

      The next day brought cold and grey fall weather, so I put on my grue-bleen overshirt, my
warmest one. It was the kind of day that encouraged one to stay silent and sullen, to keep to
oneself, much like almost any other day of Northern Ohio fall, winter, or spring. The weather's
heavy influence teamed up with my work-laden schedule to create The Day I Didn't Speak to
Anybody. It was late October of my junior year. The day began normally, with me heading to
my regular Thursday morning class. I got there a minute late and slunk to the first available seat
so as to call as little attention to myself as possible. From there I went to the snack bar, where I
grabbed a quick lunch while doing reading for my afternoon class. After eating I retired to the
library to finish my reading assignment with just minutes to spare. I trekked back to King for
class, then back to the library to take care of the philosophy reading for Friday's class. Halfway
through the assignment my eyes grew heavy and I dozed for an hour or two. I awoke fifteen
minutes before supper was supposed to end. Groggily, I stumbled across Wilder bowl to
Dascomb, where I took a plate of whatever was left. The place was nearly empty and I didn't see
anyone I recognized. Well, that's not true. At a school of three thousand, you always recognize
half the people in the room. But that evening there was nobody I knew by name, so I sat by
myself and ate quickly. After dinner I walked southward to my single in Spanish house, where I
watched the Simpsons in an empty lounge and then continued my philosophy reading. After that
I started a problem set for my Friday afternoon class.
      Sometime in the middle I wandered down to the lounge to stretch my legs and get a snack
from the vending machine. Snickers, of course. For your fifty cents, Snickers was the best buy
you could get, at 3.02 ounces. Milky Way was only 2.98 ounces. That's four-hundredths of an
ounce less nourishment. Nothing else came close. Chips were only forty cents, but you'd get
maybe an ounce of goods if you were lucky. A complete rip-off. Most other snacks were in the
two-ounce range. I could get good product density from some of the larger snacks, like a
Hostess fruit pie, but they cost sixty-five cents, which ruled out getting both a snack and a fifty-
cent soda from the lone dollar bill in my pocket. So frequently a Snickers and a Doctor Pepper
was my choice. I returned to my room, played some computer games, surfed the internet for a
while, finished the problem set, took a longish shower, and then went to bed around two-thirty
in the morning.
      Friday morning I made it to class just in time to say hi to Dave before the lecture began.
Afterwards, over lunch, I couldn't stop talking. There seemed to be so much to say. That's when
I realized that I hadn't spoken more than two or three words to anybody the day before.
"Lasagna," I may have said to the woman behind the counter at dinner. "Excuse me," once or
twice as I traversed the library. "Hey," as I passed acquaintances in the mail room or the
hallways of King. That was it. An entire day of work with absolutely zero socialization. Yikes!
And I hadn't even noticed until it was over. Yikes, yikes!
     It was then that I realized Oberlin was beginning to get the better of me. Up to that point, I
was doing very well in my classes for the semester. But I knew it was going to get much tougher
in November and December, and it looked like I could easily be forced to spend a good number
of days working under similar conditions, just to get everything done in the nick of time. On top
of that, Kim and I, though dating, were not in a particularly comfortable situation at that point.
Her presence could be enjoyable at times, but she was also a source of frustration. On a bad day,
it was easier to avoid her than to seek out her company. All of this put together painted an ugly
picture. Could I take two more months like that? I didn't think so. Something would have to
     I explained all of this to Dave, who was sympathetic. "I'm looking at a tough semester, too.
You have to weigh fun against education. It's really a question of how much you're willing to
put up with. How much are you willing to go through?"
     "Throw goo?" I asked, and stopped worrying about it for a little while.

      Late one night Marcus and I trod the path to Missler's Grocery store. It was about a mile or
two south of campus, on Main Street, and it was the only establishment open at four in the
morning on a Friday/Saturday. There used to be a Convenient store just south of downtown,
much closer than Missler's, but it closed junior year. Rumors circulated it was shut down for
selling alcohol to minors. Many a night I wandered wistfully past the old Convenient on my way
to the distant Missler's. For nearly a month after its closing, Convenient remained tantalizingly
stocked with goodies. Time and again, late-night (and usually drunken) urges filled my head
with thoughts of looting that abandoned property. I would have paid good money for the owner's
permission to assault the establishment with a brick and a duffel bag. Having the opportunity to
loot a Convenient store for ten minutes might just be the coolest prize they'll never offer in a
      Marcus and I been hanging out at his friend's house earlier, sort of a smallish private party,
and we'd gotten hungry. On the way to our sole source of nourishment, some stray windblown
plastic food wrappers sparked a conversation.
      "Why the hell can't they put that stuff in a trash can?" I asked. "It's not like it's that hard to
find one. They're all over downtown, and there isn't a house in this country that doesn't have at
least one. How hard is it to carry home?"
      Marcus replied, "Actually that stuff doesn't do much more harm out here than it does in a
landfill. It still just sits there for centuries without decaying. Out here it's uglier because you
have to look at it, but the landfills are going to be just as much a problem in the future. Maybe
it's even better out here where it makes you think about it."
      "I still think trash in one place is better than trash all over the place. But I guess you're
suggesting they should recycle it instead of throw it away, right?"
      "Of course they should recycle it."
      "What do you mean, 'why?'"
      "Why recycle?"
      "All right, Mr. Devil's Advocate, I'll tell you. Everybody who cares anything for the
environment knows that recycling is one of the most important things the average citizen can do
to keep the world clean and healthy." It was like Marcus was quoting from the bible--but he was
just about to cross wits with a determined heretic.
      "Forget the average citizen. The average citizen is unreliable and has nothing to do with 95
percent of the environmental issues we face. The average citizen just wants to watch TV, he
doesn't want extra work. Anything that the general populace does for the environment stems
from the media's influence. People wanted to feel like they were doing something good, and
when scientists gave them a number of options, recycling won the popularity contest. That's all.
It's the new opiate of the masses, but it's otherwise pointless."
      "You're kidding, right? How can you say 250 million people in this country alone don't
      "Because they don't. They really don't. Not on this level. People just make do with what's
available to them. If you're worried about air quality, you won't get anywhere by telling people
to drive less, because they aren't going to change. But if you make sure every new car is made
with a cleaner engine, people will buy them because that's what's available to buy. The only way
in which the populace counts is that if enough of them think something is important, it will get
funding. To actually get anything done, you have to focus on the product, not the users."
      "All right, then what about recycled products? Aren't they better than non-recycled
      "Nope. The benefits of recycling are a myth. In fact, the premise behind the entire concept
is faulty."
      Marcus gave a snort of disbelief. "I don't even know where to begin arguing with you about
that, so I'll humor you. How is recycling a faulty concept?"
      Those who did not go to Oberlin might not understand just how outrageous my claims
were. The entire place was environmental activism central, as Green as the rain-drenched Ohio
cornfields. Taking care of the earth was a way of life (lay of wife) to most Obies--they were
wedded to the cause, bedfellows to the concept of recycling. Across the entire campus, any
section of hallway that possessed a trash can was likely to also possess a container for aluminum
cans, a container for plastic, and a receptacle for paper waste as well. For most Obies, sorting
their garbage was as common sense as sorting laundry into piles of light and dark. For me to
suggest that recycling was pointless went far beyond heresy; it was utter nonsense. My chances
were better of convincing Marcus that a green light means stop than they were of getting him to
stop recycling. But I tried anyway.
      "Recycling isn't just a myth, it's actually dangerous. It lulls the population into
complacency, so that they believe they're doing enough when in fact they are just wasting their
time, energy, and money. Recycling as it stands is not sustainable. We're reprocessing a very
small portion of a limited resource and we're pretending that this will prevent the resource from
running out. But we're still going to use it all up, just a little bit slower than before. And in the
meantime, the trash keeps piling up. Recycling will never make things cleaner than they are: It's
just a process for making slightly less mess in the future. If we follow this path, we're eventually
doomed. You realize that, don't you?"
      "Of course not! We've done some damage to the planet, but we can fix it if we try hard
      "No, we can't. Not if we want to hold on to civilization. Fix it? Hell, Marcus, the entire
planet glows in the dark now. You can stand on pavement in Boston and follow that same piece
of interstate pavement all the way to Seattle. That's not something you can "fix" without making
it disappear. And it won't disappear as long as people are driving cars and our economy
demands the exchange of goods and our government continues to exist."
      "You're getting a little abstract there, Martin."
      "Okay, fine. Stick with plastic. There's already too much of the stuff out there. Whole
valleys in the Mojave desert have filled to the brim with drifting styrofoam peanuts.
Audiocasette tape is the kudzu of the new millennium; vines of it cover whole mountainsides in
Tennessee. If we stacked all of the CDs on the planet, they'd reach from here to the moon and
back three times."
      "I don't know, maybe. The point is, it's believable. You know it is. Because there's way too
much of that junk sitting out there in landfills and on roadsides. We're already far behind, and a
program like recycling only slows down the process. In the long run, it'll never work."
      My friend and I paused in our conversation as we entered Missler's. The bright lights made
us squint, reminding us how late it was, how tired we were. Keeping my train of thought under
that harsh glare seemed impossible, but Marcus held me to it.
      "So what are we supposed to do? Just give up? Game over? Lie down and let the trash
cover us all?"
      "No, that's not it. If you're really worried about pollution, why don't you try reducing or
reusing? They're more important anyway, right? You know the slogan: reduce, reuse, recycle.
It's practically a mantra. But they're in that order for a reason. We should be most focused on
reducing, because it's the most important; it leaves the most resources untouched and costs the
least. After that, we should try as hard as possible to reuse what we can, because that's next most
important. Personal re-use still costs almost nothing, and it diverts the need to use new
resources. Only when both of those fail should we resort to attempting to recycle, which is both
comparatively expensive and makes use of power and other resources as part of the process.
Recycling should be our last-ditch effort, not our goal. All we're doing by recycling is buying a
tiny bit of extra time. Mostly, though, we need something new. Something entirely different. A
system that cleans as it goes. Or at least something that breaks even. I'll leave the details to the
researchers and the visionaries. It's all about what you get back for what you put in. Right now
we're devoting way too much time and money to a losing program just because it loses slightly
less than the old system and it's "popular." But that's not good enough. I'd rather use the time
and money to develop a winning plan. After all, what's better, a plan that recycles ten percent of
our aluminum at a medium cost, or a new invention that uses half the aluminum at no cost?"
      "Okay, so what do we do in the meantime?"
      "Nothing. Don't worry about it."
      Marcus looked up from contemplating two different bags of chips. He kept the sour cream
and chive and put the Doritos back on the shelf. "How can we not worry about something like
that? How can we just forget the ozone layer or global warming?"
      "I didn't say forget about it. You can do something effective yourself, or you can trust that
someone else will. Either way there's no need to worry. But it's silly to waste your time on a
temporary fix, especially a bad one."
      "But what if we don't make it in time? What if we can't fix our problems as fast as we
create them?"
      "Then we don't make it. And good riddance. It's a race. Figure out how to live right or die
trying. If we don't make it, then we didn't deserve it. We weren't good enough."
      "That's a little harsh, isn't it? Sometimes I wonder how you ended up at a place like this."
      I ignored the jab. My friends had been saying for years I didn't fit the Oberlin mold. And
that was partially true, I suppose. I really was a typical Obie in that they and I both shared a
number of concerns about the world: politics, the environment, human rights, and the like. It's
just that after starting with the same question they and I frequently ended up with very different
answers. At first I assumed if everyone else disagreed, I must be wrong. But the more I thought
about it, the more I became convinced that my conclusions were at least as valid. This led me to
question more of the standard answers, until by the end of my stay there I'd worked out
unorthodox responses to just about every topic. Now and again I tried explaining my viewpoints
to my friends, but we rarely saw eye-to-eye. Eventually I just learned to let them call me
kwyjibo and drop the argument. I knew they meant well, so I took no offense. But I also knew I
meant well, so neither did I back down.
      The night at Missler's was no exception. Marcus thought I was callously damning humanity
for not being good enough. I tried to explain. "The thing is, Marcus, I think we are good enough
to make it. It's just that I worry if we get too bogged down in the little stuff we might not take
care of the big issues. That's why I think we need to aim higher. We need 'good' solutions. 'Less
bad' just isn't enough."
      "I don't know, Martin. We know that recycling helps. We have no guarantees that your
mystery solution will ever surface. We'd be stupid to ignore a problem we know we can do
something about."
      "All right, whatever." There were hours worth of arguments still in my head, including the
analogy that a doctor wouldn't worry about giving his patient a tetanus shot until after he'd
stitched up the gaping wound. But I was feeling too tired to push things any further, and I knew I
wasn't going to win any converts. I never had. My ideas were never mainstream PC enough. Not
enough heart; not enough squishy feel-good, let's all come together to save the world. Definitely
too much calculation and cynicism, mixed with inappropriate levels of hardcore idealism. I
doubted what they believed in, believed in the systems they felt had betrayed us in the first
place. Usually my friends kept firmly to the policy of avoiding arguments about policies with
me. It just frustrated everyone involved.
      Marcus seemed happy to let this particular discussion drop, too.
      I turned down the beverage aisle. I'd just remembered I had a bottle of Captain Morgan's
that desperately needed a mixer. "Hey," I said, "I need to get some come for my roke."
      Marcus whipped his head around to look at me. "What?! You did not just say that!"

     It was the one and only night that Dave tried DSL--I mean LSD. He didn't get along with
the stuff, not at all. But that's not the sort of thing you find out until it's too late. His friend
Nathan had talked him into the experiment. I only vaguely knew Nathan, mostly from cameos
when he and Dave ran into each other in a hallway and chatted for a minute or two. They'd been
neighbors freshman year and still kept in touch, much like me and my crew from the early years.
     Dave had always been a little nervous about the drug, and I'd figured it wasn't the sort of
experience you want to go into with serious doubts, so I'd never pressed him on the subject. If
you're already worried and paranoid, you really don't want to take something that can amplify
worry and paranoia. But I guess Nathan had reassured him and he'd given it a shot.
     From what I gathered, things started out well enough, but just about the time their brains
got really mushy they'd become separated. Dave wasn't really clear on how that had happened,
he just knew that it had. At first he went back to his room and tried to ride it out, but things had
taken a bad turn and he wasn't enjoying the experience. Dave decided he was in need of help
when he found himself huddled in a corner, cocooned in his comforter, listening to funeral
dirges for the pipe organ at high volume. He later relayed to me that he wasn't so much bothered
by the situation as by the fact that he kept imagining he was at his own funeral, and it upset him
terribly that he couldn't hear anybody crying over him. That, apparently, was just too much. He
tore off the blanket, switched off the music, and went in search of friends who could help.
      Polly and I were hanging out in my room when Dave knocked on the door. We let him in
and could immediately tell something was wrong. His eyes were wide, flickering continually,
pupils the size of basketballs. And he was spooning like a madman. Not just spoons. Dave
seemed to be having problems with basic sentence structure.
      "Dave, are you okay?" Polly asked. She was head-over-heels for the guy, but her feelings
went unrequited. She and Dave had both discussed it at some point. They'd worked out some
arrangement where they did their best to ignore the situation, but Polly's concern for his welfare
still clearly declared her feelings. She was inexperienced with LSD, though, and mostly stayed
quiet as I tried to reassure Dave.
      "Things keep speeding down and slowing up in front of my eyes," he explained. "And I've
nost Lathan. I've been looking over the place all for him looking. Then I tried to rest, but I slant
keep. Can't sleep."
      "No, you probably won't be able to for a few hours at least," I said. "How long has it been
since you took the stuff?"
      "Sive or fix hours. Probably five. What's time?"
      "What time is it?"
      "Yeah. Didn't I just ask you that? Oh, wait, you were asking if I was asking, weren't you?
How's that for asking? I took at thrive o' fee. Five oh three. Don't know why I remember. Oh,
wait, because I remember ... because I was paying attention. I wanted to know when it was,
when I was taking, so I'd know how long I'd been taking it."
      "Well, it's about ten-thirty now, so you're more than five hours in. The worst of it is
probably over. It'll take an hour or two to really lighten up and then another couple to mostly
fade away."
      "That long?"
      "Yeah, probably."
      "I've been seeing things, you know."
      "Well, yeah. You're supposed to," I reassured him.
      "Yeah, I guess so. And my strange have been thoughts. Thange have been stroughts. Uh,
you know."
      "Of course. That's supposed to happen, too."
      Dave seemed unconsoled. "I just didn't expect it ... the way it is."
      "That rough, eh?"
      "Yeah. There was a moment when something happened amazing, though. Right when it
started to ink sin--sink in--I could feel a warmth flowing through my body. It was like there was
energy pulsing through every one of my veins. Like fire. Foughts of liar. No, softer than fire.
More fluid, more life-giving. Like blood. It was like there was flood blowing through my
      "I hate to tell you this, but there is blood flowing through your veins."
      "Oh, right. Yeah ... but I could feel the pud blumping. Different ... that was different."
      To my knowledge, people don't normally become anywhere near that incoherent when
under the influence of acid. Somewhat incoherent, yes, but not like Dave. I suspected either the
dose had been unusually strong or Dave had an unusual personal reaction to the chemical.
Physically he seemed okay, so I kept all of my theories to myself. Until he was back to normal,
it would be plain stupid to suggest that anything might be even mildly out of the ordinary. Polly
and I did our best to distract him until the chemical ran its course. We asked him what he'd been
up to, encouraged him to pick out some happy music to listen to, plied him with pens and paper
and glow in the dark toys to catch his interest. I turned on my Christmas lights, which seemed to
improve Dave's mood a little. For a while he'd seem better, and then he'd get really quiet and
lost-looking again, and we'd have to pull him back out of it. Eventually Dave seemed content to
start making a list of every spoonerism he'd uttered that night. Polly and I helped him remember,
threw out some of our own, sometimes intentionally and often accidentally. Dave's chemically
mangled speech seemed to be contagious.
      The list itself never came to much. At the beginning I was actually quite excited about
starting a list of spoons; it seemed like it could turn into the next Great Project. I guess it could
have, if I'd remembered that you don't put the man on acid in charge of such a project. Any
project. After an hour of throwing out all the spoons we could think of, I peeked over Dave's
shoulder to see how the list was coming along. I was concerned because he had the pencil at an
odd angle and seemed to be shading rather than writing things down.
      There were a dozen valid entries at the top. Steamed crab = creamed stab. Be amused = me,
abused? Suit and tie = toot and sigh. And so on. But after that, the list quickly degenerated:

         Dan and Aaron = Ann and Darren
         blood flowing = life
         taffy apple = affy tapple
         horse = horse
         apple horse apple happy apple apple
         Life is the ... life is:

      Below that was an enormous C, filling most of the page. Dave was tracing around and
around the outside, making it bolder and larger with each pass. "Hey Dave," I said. "New words
is woo nerds."
      He looked up from his shading. "That's a good one!" I waited for him to write something
down, but he just nodded vigorously at me for a moment and then went back to his shading. The
guy seemed happy, so I didn't press things any further.
      A couple of hours later, Dave appeared to be much recovered. At one point he let out an
enormous sigh. "I've learned thumb sing tonight. Something. Hallucination is not for me."
      "Yeah," I quipped, "hallucination is not for me or the screaming turkeys on the wall."
      Polly laughed. Dave looked at me for a second as it sank in, then laughed as well. It was the
first genuine laugh we'd heard from him that evening. It was good to hear.
      His affirmation was enthusiastic. "Yeah, yeah! Civilization is not for me or the screaming
monkeys on the wall."
      Polly gave him a quizzical look. "Did you just say civilization?" she asked.
      "And screaming monkeys?" I inquired.
     Dave giggled. "Uh .... yeah, I guess so. Civilization, hallucination. Turkeys, monkeys.
Whatever." He giggled again, giving a loud snort at the end. We tried to sort out the
misunderstanding, but it just got funnier. In my mind, I pictured a large room filled with
monkeys, all of them hoppping and hooting and screeching at the top of their voices. Hundreds
of them. The room in my mind looked a lot like the meeting floor of the House of
Representatives, for some reason. Maybe the color of the wooden wall in my dorm room
reminded me of the wooden desks I remembered from some high-school social studies film.
Maybe it was the reference to civilization. Either way, I interpreted Dave's explanation to mean
that civilization was fit neither for him nor for the members of congress, all of whom were the
equivalent of a bunch of turkeys or a pack of screaming monkeys.
     Like I said, Dave's state of mind seemed to be contagious. Not chemically transferrable, of
course. It's just that wacky, free-wheeling, fluid thinking engenders more of the same in those
around you. Maybe not always, maybe it's just me. It takes very little to bring out my wacky,
free-flowing inner fun-thinker.
     "Hey, Dave, did you know your ears are bright red?" Polly asked.
     He put his hand to the side of his head. "Huh. That's weird. I guess I've been laughing so
hard my beers are earning."

      It was late fall my junior year when I became resigned to the fact that I would never take a
creative writing course at Oberlin. I was sorting through the curriculum guide for spring
semester, deciding what classes to take. My strategy for narrowing down eighty or ninety
potential courses to just five actual classes was to start by thumbing through the pages and
letting all of the intriguing possibilities float through my mind. At that level, almost everything
seemed fascinating. Anthropology, psychology, art history, chemistry, music appreciation,
religious studies, and on and on. All this stuff that I knew little to nothing about, and it was all
there for the taking. What new worlds might open up? What fascinating truths about the
universe were there to be learned? What would it be like to return to the smell of sulphur and
the clink of beakers in a chemistry lab? What mysterious religion from the East might offer me
insights and guidance on a daily basis? How amazing might it be to gain a depth of
understanding for music, to learn about its history and context, to turn an enjoyable experience
into something profound?
      Art history had been such an experience. The entire course was a complete revelation.
Every single piece of information was completely new to me. In a literature course you're bound
to read something you've already read. In math, you'll go over concepts you've covered before.
But the Introduction to Japanese Art covered history, culture, religions, traditions, and images,
all of which were complete and fascinating novelties. Before the course, I probably could have
put together maybe two coherent sentences about Buddhism, and possibly I could have
recognized the famous "Great Wave" print, though I couldn't have named it. I'm hardly an expert
now, but I can say this for sure: Before taking the class I would have found talking about the
subject intimidating, and now I find it exciting. Can there be any more fantastic transformation
than that?
      Every semester I contemplated what might be my next great revelation. I loved it. I'd start
with a list of ten or fifteen or sometimes twenty courses that sounded awesome. Slowly,
agonizingly, over the course of a day or two the less appealing or less practical would be weeded
out. Early morning classes weren't practical. The math course conflicted with the music course;
pick one or the other. Were there any unmet graduation requirements? Nope, not at that point.
Everything had been taken care of except for credit hours, and the need to take a minimum of
one philosophy course per semester. So, which flavor of philosophy would it be this time? Hmm
      Creative Writing 101 had been on my list every semester, without exception. This time
around was no different, until I reread the course description. "Seniors and second-semester
juniors are discouraged, in order to leave space for students who intend to major in Creative
      Damn! So it was too late. Somehow I guess I'd assumed there was still time to work the
second major in. But there just wasn't any way to squeeze thirty hours of creative writing
courses into three semesters. Did they even offer that many hours? Maybe, but just barely. And
since I couldn't double-up the intro and higher level courses right now, there definitely wasn't
time. In the back of my mind I suppose I'd known it was already too late.
      Sitting there in my bedroom, I punched my pillow a few times. Well, there went another
plan. It occurred to me that I probably should have talked to someone sooner. Unlike most of the
other majors, you couldn't just decide to major in creative writing. Because of high demand you
actually had to apply to be accepted into the introductory course. It was almost like trying to get
a date with the program. I applied my first three semesters, even though they don't accept first-
semester freshmen, something I didn't realize until later. Then I skipped a couple of semesters
because of schedule conflicts with critical philosophy courses. And "suddenly" it was too late.
Huh. I guess I didn't flirt very well with the program. I'm bad when it comes to flirting with
women, too.
      I debated trying to get into the course anyway, despite the official discouragement, but then
let it go. I would have done the same thing at a party: If I met a woman early in the night and
failed on several different occasions to strike up a conversation, I'm not going to walk up to her
at the end of the night and say, "Look, I know there isn't time left for any real conversation, but
do you wanna just hook up for a while?" Okay, maybe the analogy's a little shaky, but that's
more or less what I would have been trying to do by starting the program at that point.
      So the question was, what did I do now? Whatever I did after graduation, writing was likely
to be involved. I loved philosophy, but I didn't necessarily think I'd do anything with it. What's a
professional philosopher--assuming he's working in the field and not bartending--do, anyway?
Teach, write books, or keep coffee shops in business. Maybe all three. I knew teaching wasn't
for me, so that left the other two, if I stayed in my field. But mostly I took philosophy to help me
understand the world, figure out how to deal with it, that sort of thing. Writing of any sort was
what I wanted to do. The past couple of years had made it clear I wasn't going to get any writing
done on my own in college. I had more completed work from my final semester of high school
than I had from five semesters in college. [Footnote: The mathematically inclined may note that
it's not very difficult to do more than nothing in an entire semester. My reply is that with a
college admission letter in my hands and a bad case of senioritis, I was striving to my utmost to
do less than nothing that semester. An ironic effort, with an ironically productive outcome.
Given the status of the effort, I suppose the irony of the result should have been predictable.
How ironic is that? Or is it?] I figured my only hope for doing any literary work in college was
to force myself through classwork, but that now seemed to be out of the question.
      I might have been more upset, except that I knew in this field the major didn't necessarily
make the man. Most of the authors I liked or respected came from backgrounds other than
creative writing. Come to think of it, I couldn't remember ever reading a bio that mentioned a
degree in creative writing. English or literature, sure. But I also knew of a number of scientists,
linguists, historians, and lawyers who were popular authors. I'd lost an opportunity, I'd missed
out on part of my plan, but the dream would still be open to me. Comparatively speaking, not
taking any creative writing courses was a small thing. College was supposed to be about
learning how to learn, how to think, how to set goals and meet deadlines. It was about fun, and
socializing, and growing up a little in a safe environment. I'm nearly as saddened by the thought
of other courses I had to give up along the way, whole avenues of knowledge that passed me by.
It's only frustrating because writing has always meant more to me than the other subjects. Now
that I'm graduated and have to think about doing something with myself for the next fifty years,
I'm realizing that I'd rather be writing than doing just about anything else work-related. So it's
disappointing that I didn't get an earlier start on the subject, get more practice in a friendly
environment. At the very least maybe somebody could have stopped me and let me know if I
was really bad, to save me years of hope and wistful contemplation. It's a depressing thought,
but something I'd prefer to know sooner rather than later.
      Mostly, finding myself excluded from the program was disappointing. It's just one more
example in a long string of frustrations. Maybe several years of such frustrations at least in part
explains my frame of mind during a conversation I had with Dave not long after. Here goes
(gear hoes):

     We were eating supper one evening in the section of Stevenson dedicated to one Donald
Rufus Longman, whose name presented me with a difficult spooneristic dilemma. Was he
Lonald Dufus Rongman, a strikingly appropriate combination of being both a dufus and
incorrect, or was he Ronald Lufus Dong-man, which was right up there with "bunghole" as far
as the Beavis and Butthead devils sitting on my shoulder were concerned? I love both spoons
and have never settled upon a preference. At this point, I should add my apologies to any who
knew this esteemed benefactor, who, according to a brass plaque by the entry, was a "visionary
entrepreneur, corporate leader, teacher, and creative individualist." I do not mock him
personally, I just find great joy in his name. Sticks and stones and all that jazz. Honestly, I think
I would have liked the guy. A self-proclaimed Dartin' Molly certainly deserves a measure of
lenience, right?
     "You know, Dave," I confessed that wintry evening, "sometimes I think life here is all
about going around building a list of people you'll never feel comfortable talking to again. It's
like you meet people, and make friends, and then something happens, and that's the end of it."
     Dave let out a sound that could have been a laugh or a sigh, or something else entirely.
"Martin, I can't tell you how glad I am that I'm not the only one who feels that way."
     "So you know what I'm talking about?"
     "Oh, sure. Totally."
     Until that moment, I hadn't imagined what a relief it would be to know someone else
understood. "It's like there's always some unforgivable error just waiting to happen. And then
you just can't look the person in the eye anymore. Because maybe there was that one
conversation that got way too intense and now you don't know why you said all that to them. Or
maybe there's a gal you flirted with at a party where you were really drunk and now you can't
remember anything you did. Or your friend's ex-roommates's girlfriend told you a story about
somebody else and even if it's not true you can't talk to that person without thinking about the
story and wanting to laugh or run away."
     "Yeah, man. It's all the angst floating around here. Sometimes nothing even happened, like
the people I hung out with freshman year and haven't really talked to since then. I don't even
know them anymore. I just remember all the strange things they did, and I'm sure they're trying
to remember why they stopped hanging out with me. They've probably got some good reason
that I don't even know about. So it's easier to ignore them."
     "Yeah," I agreed. "So you just sort of nod at each other in the hallway, but you're thinking
to yourself, 'Please God don't let them stop.' You keep looking at each other as you pass to see if
one of you is going to say something and then when they don't you're relieved, but in a way
you're embarrassed, too."
     "Totally. And then the next time you see them, you have the last time to worry about, on
top of all the other stuff."
     "Yeah. Hell, I've been doing that with Shana for more than two years already. There's no
way I could ever talk to her now."
     "Shana? The Shana from our Philosophy of Science course? Oh, that's right. I forgot you
two hooked up at one point. So you two aren't speaking? What happened?"
     "Nothing, really. I think we just both panicked. We spent a couple of nights together and
then we just didn't see each other again. Maybe we were both waiting for the other to call.
Maybe we were busy. Maybe we were afraid of what would happen. I sure as hell was pretty
nervous about the whole situation. Everything happened in December. Then we hit finals, and
winter break, and winter term. When I saw her again at a party in February I said hi, and she said
hi, and then we sorta smiled and didn't say anything else until one of us got pulled away."
     "I can sympathize completely. Honestly, Martin, that's a lot less dramatic an end than most
of my romantic adventures. I think there are a couple of women out there who actively hate me
or think I'm a freak. But it's not just from relationships. There are plenty of old friends that are
just as awkward now."
     "Yeah. Me, too. It's burning bridges, Dave. That's what it is. And then it's a race to see
whether you can meet new people faster than you can alienate them. Build new bridges, burn the
old ones down. Sometimes I think I'm doing okay, other days I'm convinced I'm going to scare
off everybody. Thank God we're only here four years. Just imagine how many people we'd have
to hide from if this were an eight-year program."
     "It helps that people are always graduating, too. The new faces may be strangers, but at
least they don't hate you."
     That's what Oberlin felt like, some of the time. Not always, but often enough. The school
was filled with walking, talking reminders of every embarrassing word or deed. Looking
through the yearbook was like reviewing a checklist of guilt.
     Hell, maybe the world in general works that way, too. I haven't seen enough to be sure.
High school didn't seem quite so bad. The students as a whole may have been more narrow-
minded, but it came with a lot of social padding: We all had homes to go back to, families to
deal with, and strict chaperones most of the time we were in the company of our peers. We
weren't packed like sardines into dorms and classrooms, all on a little parcel of land.
     My short conversation with Dave didn't change anything, but I at least felt slightly
vindicated in my opinions. It was nice to know that a friend might seal the fame.
      The Day I Didn't Speak to Anybody prodded me into choosing between my happiness and
my academic success, the two factions facing off in a series of hard-fat bottles. Excuse me:
hard-fought battles.
      It was the perfect setup for another inevitable MEEB, as my academic success was strongly
tied to my personal happiness. Favoring either aspect was bound to negatively impact both in
the end. I faced an institutionally sponsored case of fear and loathing in Oberlin.
      The first thing I did was drop a class. Not officially; I just stopped showing up. I was taking
five classes and an ExCo for a total of sixteen credit hours, a heavy load by Oberlin standards.
You had to get special permission to take more than eighteen, and they charged you for anything
over sixteen. My friends at state schools regularly took 18 and 21 credit hours; I've never been
able to figure out if they were crazy or if hours are denser at Oberlin. Either way, I'd had enough.
There was a week where I had three separate papers due within 48 hours of each other, totalling
a minimum of 40 pages, and even a week ahead of time I knew finishing them all wasn't going
to be feasible. Rather than ask for an extension I just called it quits on my introductory
sociology class. I wasn't enjoying it that much anyway. The readings were good, but it was my
fifth low-level course in the social sciences. Other than a slight shift in which facts were being
covered, it was nearly indistinguishable from the previous four. It also met too early in the
morning. At 10 a.m. I preferred to be sleeping rather than learning or laboring.
      Things with Kim escalated dramatically (in a good way) soon after the fateful day of
silence, too. This was both helpful and detrimental. On the positive side, I was guaranteed to
have someone to speak to every day. She was a source of warmth and companionship that I
could lose myself in. The only drawback was her company also consumed a considerable
amount of time, leaving me even less room to complete assignments. Kim was definitely more
engrossing than a three-credit-hour commitment, so even after dropping a class, the balance
sheet still placed me further in the red, and-
      And I began to cut corners. My first step was to become a Zen master of last-minute timing.
I say Zen because the skill requires complete knowledge of the unknowable. I once ran across a
recipe that required I add sugar to water until just before it reached the saturation point and the
sugar refused to dissolve. The thing is, there's no way to know how much sugar is needed
without going too far once and then using less the next time. There's the same inherent fallacy in
assuming you know how long something will take before you've done it. But I tried anyway. I'd
take my best guess at how much time I needed to put in, and then I'd start working that many
hours before it was due. That way, even if I wanted to, I couldn't put more effort than necessary
into the project.
      Despite the theoretical impossibility of the idea, I found that I was actually quite good at
being a Zen master of homework. I always got things done, at apparently little cost to the
quality. There's something about a deadline that gets the adrenaline going and helps me focus.
What might take ten hours to complete a week early could be accomplished in five if I waited
until the night before. Sure, I spent an inordinate amount of time under panicky, high-stress
conditions, but the system seemed to work. I got away with it for most of four semesters. I was
lucky, I guess. But there's an inherent problem with that kind of system. All it takes is one
unforseen complication or one error of judgement to completely blow a project. It's a land mine,
a time bomb, a surface-to-Martin homing missile that's locked on target. It's all kinds of
     But being young and full of hubris, I took my chances. I was determined to squeeze my
main squeeze (Kim, that is) into my schedule, as well as my friends and time for fun. I didn't
intend to experience another day without talking to anyone. So I accepted the risks of my
solution, because I sure as hell didn't like the alternative: taking a two-year vow of silence. Sow
of violence.

     This tale has an informal, unprinted, secondary title which I used as a working name until I
realized that it probably wouldn't be understood by anyone who wasn't already halfway through
the thing. Major Dilemmas: Four Years with a Small College up My Ass and What I Found
There. Dubious grammar aside, by now it should be somewhat apparent where that sentiment
comes from. The title may merit a little additional explanation, though.
     Secondary titles themselves aren't all that common. Tolkien's The Hobbit, or There and
Back Again, (or the Red Book of Westmarch) is about the only one I know of, and Tolkien--a
linguist--habitually gave everything multiple names. I'm surprised he stopped at three, come to
think of it. I've always liked long titles. The longer, the better. Rambling, puns, and obscure
references get bonus points. It's just one of those things that gives me a satisfied feeling in the
pit of my stomach. As personal physiology would have it, that's the one portion of my anatomy
that almost exclusively deals in negative, sinking feelings, so the rare positive deviation is to be
cherished and nourished whenever possible.
     My proclivity towards lengthy titles developed during an introductory literature class. We
briefly studied a novel called Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and What I Saw There, by T. S. Arthur.
It was a temperance piece, published in 1854, and in its day it was an unmitigated success. It
must have been, if it's still in print today. It was popular both for its tone of outraged morality
and also--probably more so--because it was one of the first works to give a tantalizing sneak
peek into the dirty and shameful lives of others. It was the closest thing to a talk show or a "true
crime" novel they had a century and a half ago.
     From the publisher's preface:

           "Ten Nights in a Bar-Room" gives a series of sharply drawn sketches of
      scenes, some of them touching in the extreme, and some dark and terrible ... The
      book is marred by no exaggerations, but exhibits the actualities of bar-room life,
      and the consequences flowing therefrom, with a severe simplicity, and adherence
      to truth, that gives to every picture a Daguerran vividness.

     Replace "Bar-Room" with "college" and you're getting pretty close to the point of my own
story. There are more parallels than I'd care to draw, but I'll leave them as an exercise to the
reader. I don't actually recommend reading Ten Nights, as it's disgustingly heavy-handed and
unapologetically persistent in its condemnation of the "devil alcohol." The book does begin each
chapter with a delightfully quirky piece of metathesis, though: "Night the Fourth: Death of Little
Mary Morgan" or "Night the Fifth: Some of the Consequences of Tavern-Keeping." Maybe
saying "Night the Eighth" was common practice 150 years ago, but I've never run into it before
or since.
     Despite my distaste for the book, I loved the title immediately. It was long and rolling and
really gave one the feeling that it was almost a story in its own right. That, I think, explains the
style of my subtitle, but not the content itself. For that, I turn once again to my friend metathesis.
      It happened on a Friday night in early May of freshman year. The usual crew were hanging
out in Leon's room: Leon, Manny, Seth, Ginevra, and myself. We'd been there a few hours,
smoking and talking, taking it easy.
      Leon was winding down one of his typical rants about the limitations of a college the size
of Oberlin in a town the size of Oberlin. Leon hailed from the D.C. area; crickets, starry
constellations, wide, flat spaces, and the lack of ethnic foods occasionally unsettled his nerves.
From time to time the "emptiness" would overwhelm his sensibilities, driving him into a
frenzied soap-box sermon. Our friend had just vented his worst, and, facing little opposition
from us (we knew better than to argue--boy, did we ever), he was winding his way down.
      "All I'm saying is, would it kill them to have one single all-night restaurant in the town? Or
a Mexican joint? We've got three pizza places, two Chinese places, and we're about to get a
second coffee shop, but we don't even have a single Thai or Mexican place. Even a Taco Bell
would be a godsend. Open until three a.m., to get your fix of tacos, burritos, chilitos, and
munchitos. It's this damn small-town mentality that's the problem. 'Oh, we're supposed to be
quaint! We can't have Mexican food. We can't traffic in the buying and selling of foodstuffs at
all hours like some sort of godless heathens.' The town council's always pushing everyone else
around, and a small college just can't muster enough clout to fight back. [Footnote: I have no
idea if this is true. I heard many things about the mythical and mysterious "town council" over
the years, but I don't actually know a damn thing about Oberlin town politics. As I once justified
it to Kim, "I'm here to learn, not to ... uh ... find out ... uh ... stuff ... about Oberlin."] Why the
hell did I come to such a small school? I mean, I love you guys, but wouldn't we all be better off
if we didn't recognize everyone we see in the mail room? It's like we already have a history with
everyone. There's no escaping reputations, no way to make a good first impression. For being in
the middle of nothingness, it's still impossible to escape. That's what I get for going to a small
college, I guess."
      The rest of us sat quietly, playing eye tag with each other. Leon finally stopped to catch his
breath, exhortations exhausted for the moment. He slowly lowered his arms, his color fading
from the bright flush of indignation to his normal pinkish-ivory.
      Manny stood up, opened the door to the hall. "I'll be right back," he said.
      "... after these messages," said Ginevra.
      "That's what he said," Seth quipped, in synch, even though it didn't make all that much
sense in this particular context. Or did it? If Seth was feeling darkly cynical enough he might be
intimating a man running away from an unappealing woman either at a party or on the morning
after. Sometimes it was hard to tell where Seth's brilliance ended and my own paranoid
imagination began. Particularly in conjunction with the effects of marijuana.
      Now that Leon's rant had ended and we were free to move about the cabin, I noticed that
the room had grown warm from the presence of five energetic bodies. A smoky haze gave the
room the heavy feel of a bar-room, or the amazon basin.
      "Hey, Leon, I'm going to open a window," I said.
      "Sure, go ahead."
      Heaven wafted in the instant I began to crank open the twin panels. The past week had been
somewhat cool, but the sun had shone hotly all day long and the night air was perfect. You
could stroll tirelessly in jeans and a t-shirt without feeling anything other than a gentle caress
from the atmosphere. I gazed quietly into the empty North Bowl and contemplated resting
happily under one of the trees below. Stretching out under the stars--what few I could see
through the quad's numerous walkway lights--and watching the night scroll by overhead. There
was no hint of dew (dint of hue) in the grass to make the experience anything less than
superlative. It was the year's first summerlike night, and its comfort called to something almost
forgotten within me. Memories of playing in my backyard tent as a child, flashlights and
campfires and s'mores.
     "It's amazing out there," I said to Ginevra, who was seated next to me.
     She inhaled a deep breath of night. "Yeah. It's so nice. I can't believe sometimes this is the
same place where snot can freeze in your nose in the winter."
     "It really makes you appreciate nights like this. You know," I said, "I'm almost tempted to
take a pillow and go to sleep down there in the grass."
     Seth must have heard me. "Yeah, and wake up with a used condom up your ass," he said.
     "Seth!" I was downright shocked. I guess he really was feeling darkly cynical this evening.
     Seth continued, "With all the fudgepackers around here, I wouldn't go to sleep in public if I
were you."
     The bluntness of his statements, the utter lack of regard for political correctness, the
prejudicial bias against "stereotypical" homosexuality, it was so ridiculous it struck us all as
hilariously funny. Maybe because it embodied everything we knew Oberlin fought against,
everything we knew Seth did not believe in. Or maybe because there was an uneasy kernel of
fearful truth: the reason I wasn't truly considering sleeping under the stars that or any other
night. It could be we laughed because it hurt too much not to. Or maybe we just laughed for the
joy of laughter. I won't rule that out, either.
     "Come on, man. It's as safe here as it is anywhere else."
     "All right, fine. Sleep under the stars if you want to, but it's Uranus!" A wave of groans
came from the crowd.
     "That's awful. My, you're mercurial this evening."
     "Driving my Saturn always does that to me."
     I struggled for another pun. "Uh ... uh ... now that you've planet the seeds of doubt in my
mind, maybe I won't camp out tonight."
     "Camp if you want to. I guess if Venus strikes you can always cleanse with Comet."
     "Oooh! Ow! That hurts just thinking about it!"
     Seth grinned wickedly. "It Oorts, eh? It's clouded your perceptions? You can't think of a
meteor response than that, huh?"
     "Seth, you're out of control!"
     Manny had walked back into the room in the midst of the pun-fest. His gaze had bounced
back and forth between us like a man courtside at a tennis match, brow furrowed in
concentration as he stonedly tried to interpret the scene. When we stopped punning, he gave up
his silent struggle. "What's going on?"
     I explained. "I was just saying it's such a nice night outside that it'd be fun to camp out in
the grass, but then Seth was like, 'Yeah, and wake up with a small college up your ass!'" I
paused, sensing that something was amiss. My friends all stared at me blankly for a moment,
then broke into raucous laughter. "Did I just say 'small college up your ass?'"
     "Yeah," Seth gasped, wiping a tear from his eye before collapsing helplessly on the floor.
With that catalyst, every one of us laughed again until we cried. It took nearly fifteen minutes of
intermittent, breathless storytelling to get the actual course of events across to Manny. Seth's
homophobic role-playing was forgotten, the original crass analysis faded away, the plan to camp
outside was obliterated. But everyone agreed there was something deeply wise about my
confused interpretation. Leon in particular seemed to have empathy for anyone's waking up with
a small college up his ass, since it described perfectly his frame of mind during his earlier rant.
Each of the rest of us had felt the same thing about Oberlin, at one time or another.
      "Wow," I said. "Talk about a Freudian slip."
      Seth was ready for that one, too. "Like when you say one thing but mean your mother?"
      "Yeah, something like that."
      If I had known that the truth I spoke that evening was only the tip of the iceberg, I might
have given up right then. Transferred. Taken up a labor-intensive, minimal-training position
somewhere and forgotten all about this learning stuff. Dropped out to follow the Grateful Dead
and let my mind go to pot. Who knows? All I know is from the perspective of three years later,
my misstatement was far more accurate than I could have imagined. And also much, much less
funny, but-
      But that explains the working subtitle for this book. Four Years with a Small College up
My Ass and What I Found There. The grammar's not great, as I mean what I found at the small
college and not what I found in my nether regions, of course. For the sake of literary parallel I'm
keeping it the way it is, because it's so wonderfully long and incredibly descriptive.
      My brain must have been completely on the blink that particular evening. Just a few
minutes after the "small college" incident, our conversation moved on to things we found sexy
about the opposite sex. It didn't matter that Ginevra was there; she took turns with the rest of us.
In fact, having someone of the female persuasion present as an active participant is what made
the conversation acceptable. It sanctioned our thoughts as a valid discussion with appropriate
room for each side to object if anything inappropriate was said. Without Ginevra, the rest of us
guys would have merely been indulging in a guilty objectification fest, totally unacceptable by
PC standards. With Ginevra present, we were having an educational and philosophically
speculative dialogue about the nature of sexual attraction: a task not only valid, but worthwhile.
      Naturally, we all stayed away from the obvious and "typical" areas of fixation that might
condemn us as insensitive boors. There was no debate over whether we were breast men or ass
men. Instead, we chose to show our individuality and artistic sensitivity by choosing the lesser-
known parts. I mentioned the flesh at the back of the knee, for example. Manuel had just
explained to us that he found the collarbone to be a particularly attractive piece of the female
anatomy. "There must needs be something exceedingly picturesque about the line of that bone
as it traverses the expanse of upper shoulder. Its firmness doth contrast exquisitely with the
softness of the surrounding flesh, creating an irresistible urge to place the softest, gentlest
brushing of the lips against said flesh."
      That may not have been exactly what he said, but it was at least as eloquent and also
thoroughly convincing. Seth agreed wholeheartedly with the assessment, describing an
encounter with a woman in a tank top. Manuel said, "That comely sight must have been quite
the spectacle."
      "Yeah," I quipped, "quite the speculum."
      All eyes riveted themselves on me. "Martin!" Ginevra gasped, sounding appalled.
      I was confused. "Uh, wait a second. Which one is the collarbone?"
      "You mean the clavicle?"
      "Oh. Yeah. Ha ha. That's the word I was looking for. Spectacle, speculum. Spectacle,
clavicle. Whatever."
      Gradually, during my junior year, a concept began to come to me (mum to key), inspired
perhaps by my earlier musings about the Oberlin social phenomenon. Building bridges and
burning bridges and all that jazz. It seemed to me there was a certain futility to the process, an
inevitable up and down cycle. What was worse, the down always seemed to be worse than the
up, and the down was mostly irreparable.
      It went like this. Before you meet someone, he doesn't mean anything, positive or negative.
Between you and him, there's a blank slate. Anything is possible. But once you meet him, one of
two things can occur. Either you get along, or you don't. If you don't, you can just add the guy
immediately to your list of people you don't want to talk to. Now, instead of this unknown
potential, you have an ambulatory negative experience out there waiting to run into you again.
Somebody to avoid, somebody to worry about. Somebody you can get yourself worked up over
as you gripe to your friends about him. Somebody about whom you'll wonder what he's saying
about you.
      But if you do get along with this new person, well, in the short term you've found
something good. Maybe you'll be casual acquaintances, maybe you'll be friends. Out of nothing,
sometimes something positive comes. But here's the catch: There's always the potential that
something could go wrong. Given enough time, you're almost guaranteed that it will. Some day,
either you'll say or do something that upsets him, or he'll do something to you, or time and
circumstances will drift between you and you'll fall into that awkward unfamiliarity. Even the
best of friends disappoints now and again. Sometimes you can work through it, sometimes you
don't. But given enough time and enough intervening life, something irreparable is almost bound
to happen. Then you'll have yet another bridge burned. With plenty of other potential bridges out
there, why bother rebuilding? With somebody new, you've got fresh terrain that's ripe for the
foundations of a new bridge. With a burned bridge, you'd have to put gobs of time and energy
into clearing out debris and levelling the terrain before you can start new construction. In other
words, once a situation has gone negative, you have to work just to get it back to neutral before
you can even think about trying to get something positive from it again.
      This lesson is particularly apparent in light of a poker game I have on my computer. You
start with $200 and win if you reach $1000. Half the time you end up losing right off the bat.
Once you're down $100, you can either spend forever trying to double your money just to get
back to the starting spot, or you can reset the game and instantly have your $200 back. It just
makes sense to ditch the losing hand, get out of a bad situation.
      In a social setting, it's an unpleasant Catch-22. From nothing, it either goes bad or it goes
good, and if it's good it might at any time go bad. Once it's bad, it usually stays bad. Which
means with every bridge you build, you're basically setting yourself up for getting burnt in the
future. Mathematically speaking, it makes more sense not to even try. It's a setup where you
can't win and you can't break even, you can only lose.
      But of course it's worse than that, because you can't get out of the game, either. For most of
us, it's just not possible to go through life without friends and acquaintances. We need other
people, and they need us, so-
      So, I realized, we're doomed. Plain and simple. Doomed.
      All of these thoughts reminded me of entropy. The very same phrase I used above to
describe social life at Oberlin had been used in a physics class to explain energy transfer: "You
can't win, you can't break even, and you can't even get out of the game."
     Entropy applies to the distribution of energy in a system, and for the tendency of that energy
to become evenly distributed, rather than focused. On a more philosophical level, entropy
represents the universe's tendency towards chaos over order. It explains why things fall apart but
don't fall back together again. All our efforts to create or organize require that at least as much
disorder is generated along the periphery. You always have to put more in than you get out.
There is always waste, always loss.
     People tend to feel a little bit of despair when they speak of the implications of entropy.
We're quick to place a value judgement on it. But entropy merely describes the way physical
things work in this universe. Just imagine if you always got more energy out of something than
you put in. The entire universe would be a blazing ball of infinite temperature, increasing every
moment. It wouldn't be habitable. We should be happy about entropy, if anything. But really, it's
just a statement of fact. There shouldn't be a value judgement at all. It's a universal tendency,
and that's it.
     But it got me wondering. Is there such a thing as social entropy? Something that guides our
relationships, an underlying principle that guarantees our efforts will come to naught? Worse
than that, might our efforts actually lead to greater detriment than if we made no effort at all?
     How far did this go?
     Somewhere along the line, my explorations took an interesting turn. I began to look in
specific at all the things we do to make the world a safer place. I guess it seemed like the most
poignant arena in which to enjoy the irony.
     I started simple, with the invention of the club. Pick up a stick, swing it around, and you've
got a weapon. Suddenly all kinds of animals aren't nearly as much of a threat. Little things can
be killed with almost no risk to oneself; big, scary things can be driven off. Some animals that
used to be dangerous are now food. It's the first real step in man's triumph over nature.
     But suddenly every other human out there who knows the secret can pick up a stick and do
very bad things to you, too, if you don't have your own stick. Or you're in trouble if their stick is
longer than yours, or if they're better at wielding it. So now you're safer from animals, but your
biggest competitors--other people, who before could only bruise you a little--now have the
means to severely hurt you. How's that for a trade?
     Just about every other weapon is the same. Spears, swords, arrows, guns, nuclear missiles.
You're safer from anyone who doesn't have them, and much, much more susceptible to anyone
who does.
     And then it also occurred to me that almost anything can kill you. Worse than that, really:
Given time and opportunity, everything will kill you. Blunt trauma, sharp trauma, burning
trauma, allergens, poisons, you name it. Hell, water can kill you: drowning, pneumonia,
conducting electricity. Too much oxygen. Too little oxygen. Too much heat. Too little heat.
Everything that exists not only has the potential to kill someone, inevitably it will kill someone.
Any new thing will also have this dangerous potential.
     It was dark. It was deep. It was depressing. I liked it! The safer you tried to make things, the
more dangerous the world became. Fascinating. There really did seem to be an entropy
applicable to all things lethal. Lethal entropy.
     I called the concept lethalpy, and in the quiet moments of my junior and senior years I
mused on the topic, wondering how much damage I was doing to myself and the world by
striving to graduate. Those two years, I spent a lot of time with doom. Dime with tomb.
     And last, one final spoonerism. Spinal foonerism. Kim's mom and sister came out to visit
March of our junior year. It was a show of family support; Kim's parents had divorced quite
suddenly the previous month, and it had shaken her badly. Her mom wanted to come out and
talk things over with her in person, and her seventeen-year-old sister Kelly came along for moral
support. Kelly had been home to see the marriage disintegrate over the course of a couple of
years, and seemed to be taking everything in stride. She thought she understood and could
explain events that were all a mysterious shock to Kim.
     I was a little nervous meeting the family. Besides the heightened emotional tensions of the
situation, this was the first time I'd met somebody whose daughter I was sleeping with, and I
wasn't entirely sure how she--or I--would react. The sister was a less serious concern, because I
generally trust people of my generation to be cool about things. But with the meeting of the
mother and the issues of the divorce, Kelly's presence added to the stress.
     The initial meeting wasn't too bad. I made it through with only a stammered, "It's a measure
to pleat you" as a potential source of embarrassment. Kim's mom took us all out to the Foxgrape
for supper. Oberlin's upscale restaurant, the Foxgrape was rarely frequented by students unless
they were brought by some type of parental unit. In four years, I only ate there twice. Dinner
went well, though, and I was finally starting to feel comfortable in the presence of the Tulls.
Then, as we were leaving, I stuck my foot so far into my mouth I left tooth marks on my
     "If you're going back to your place, I'll meet you there in a little bit," I said.
     "Sure. Why?" Kim asked.
     "I've got to run down to the clothing store. A friend of mine is getting married in a few
months and I need to go in for a fucks titting."
     Silence. All eyes turned towards me. What had I just said?
     "Excuse me?" Kim's mom asked. Kelly said nothing, but klaxons in my head were blaring
out the warning, "Minor! Minor! Minor!" I could feel my face turning red.
     "No! I meant a tits fucking! Uh, fits tucking?"
     Their shocked stares bore down on me with steely, incriminating weight. I hid my eyes
behind my right hand, hanging my head in embarrassment. Taking a deep breath, I let out a
shuddering sigh.
     "I need to get measured for a suit."
                                   Chapter the Sixth: Kim
     The Romantic Life of Dalí (Martin) as Reflected by the Artistic Works of the Divine Dalí

    • Paranoiac-Critical Solitude
    • Don Quixote
    • Vase de Fleurs
    • Couple with their Heads Full of Clouds
    • The Unsatisfied Desire
    • The Great Masturbator
    • Young Virgin Autosodomized by Her Own Chastity
    • Crucifixion
    • Rome
    • Masked Mermaid in Black
    • The Wounded Bird
    • Metamorphosis of Narcissus
    • The Beggar
    • The Judges
    • Nude
    • The Rose
    • Autumnal Cannibalism
    • Galarina
    • Sleep
    • Dream Caused by the Flight of A Bee Around a Pomegranate, A Second Before Waking
    • Design for the Costume for The Woman of the Future
    • The Dance
    • The Enigma of Desire
    • Angel of Alchemy
    • Swans Reflecting Elephants
    • May
    • The Persistence of Memory

     Paranoiac-Critical Solitude (1935)
     A very quiet and still scene. A car stands before a rock wall, covered in flowers and mostly
blending into the background. Nearby, another portion of the rock wall shows an outline
identically shaped to the automobile, as if it had recently been cut from the stone itself. It looks
for all the world like a final puzzle piece waiting to be put back into place.
     Kim Tull and I dated throughout most of our Junior year. I believe I've mentioned this
before, but now you have it twice. Lucky you. That's part of the joy of reading an author who
habitually repeats himself. That's part of the joy of reading an author who ... is a total smartass.
     I'll pause for a moment to mention that after all this typing, I've managed to wear out my
keyboard. Amazing, isn't it, that the human body can keep on keeping on for hours on end while
pure simple plastic bends and breaks. The first couple of days were rough. All that sitting in
front of the keyboard. Stiff shoulders, aching back, legs clamoring to stride powerfully across
campus to classes that just aren't there anymore. My wrists hurt, my fingertips bruised, my eyes
burned. Even my ears quailed under the strain of the continual whirring from the fan in my
trusty new computer. Did I mention that? No? as of two weeks ago, I'm the proud owner of a
brand-spanking-new Macintosh 7300. Compared to the old Performa 405 I started school with,
this machine is something along the lines of 20-40 times better, in every respect.
      Although I got it a few days before commencement, it wasn't really until the day after
graduation--when I awoke to find the town and my heart filled with emptiness--that I finally
turned the thing on and set out to make some good use of the computer. I opened and closed a
few applications fitfully, trying to get the feel of what I should do. Where to start? How to make
use of this new machine?
      Those first few moments were a joy. It's like waking up and finding out you're suddenly a
superhero. You just sit there and flex your muscles for a bit while you're trying to adapt to the
situation, figuring out how to use your awesome powers. Eventually, I pulled up a word
processor. [Footnote: I use Corel WordPerfect. I avoid the products of Microsoft's Evil Empire
whenever possible. You know The Company from the Alien movies, the one that keeps getting
everyone killed? It's got Microsoft written all over it. I may be a kwyjibo, but there are a few
things--such as endorsing Microsoft--that even I can't stomach.] I ran my fingers over the
keyboard. Nice, new, springy. Unbelievably inviting to the touch. It was one of those beautiful
ergonomic keyboards, the ones that split down the middle and come with attachments upon
which to rest your wrists as you type. How cool was that? Practicing, I ran through the whole
alphabet. Like doing the musical scales. Delightful. I tapped the K key for a while. So satisfying.
The soft plastik klick, the kompression, the rebounding kick of the fresh keys. Just tap it and let
the hand bounce up and away, the fingers splaying outward like a dancer or the drifting,
glittering aftermath of a firework explosion. I kould feel like a novelist kompleting the
konsummate perfekt sentence, konkluding some komprehensive philosophikal work.
      But then enough was enough. The entire board called out to be used. What to say? What to
write? How best to bring forth a symphony of clicks and clacks signifying the progression of
thoughts and ideas and dreams?
      Having no better notions at the time, I wrote the most basic of statements about my
situation. "My name is Dale Martin. My friends call me Kwyjibo. It's a Simpsons thing ..." Well,
you know the rest.
      With all this banging of keys, it was still a surprise when the keyboard broke down before I
did. Since they're supposed to last through years of use, I suppose it was just a manufacturing
error. But after nine days of nearly continual typing without a problem, a sudden snap-sprong
and the refusal of my keyboard to type the letter of the alphabet between H and J was dstressng.
Thankfully, the computer store was open ths mornng and wllng to replace the faulty keyboard
snce t was stll under warranty.
      This new one seems to be working brilliantly.
      Fortunately the rest of me, which isn't under warranty, has made a surprising recovery all on
its own. The back no longer aches. The fingers are fine and fly with unprecedented ease and
precision across the keyboard. The whir of the fan has faded into the background, as unnoticed
as the faint yellow-and-green floral striping on my bedroom wall, which, until this writing, I
haven't been aware of since late last fall. How this recovery is even possible, I can't imagine.
Plastic wears out, I get better. Miraculous, isn't it? It's a special kind of tool that gets stronger the
more you use it.
      After years of thinking about writing, it's exciting to see myself actually doing it. I don't
think it has anything to do with my extended stamina, though. That's just the machinery doing
its job. If I'd decided nine days ago to walk south on Highway 58, I'd probably be much stronger
now than I am: legs of steel, feet turned to calloused leather, fit like you wouldn't believe. I'd
also probably be in Kentucky. Instead I chose writing and now I have buns of calloused leather
and fingers of steel. Not something that will get me into a Chippendale's calendar, but still an
improvement. I say I'm excited to "see myself" writing, because it's almost out of my control.
The choice seems to have been somebody else's, and now it's something I just have to follow
through on. There's just too much stuff bouncing around inside my head and it has to go
somewhere. Given the choice among all the various outlets--drugs, tears, writing, walking to
Kentucky--I chose words.
      The format doesn't really matter. What's key is that there had to be some kind of outlet,
about that there was no choice.
      Maybe this new computer of mine will justify itself after all. Not only is it helping me with
this monumental task (I'll pretend for the moment that my old computer didn't have a word
processor) but it's the best company I have out here in these desolate days of diplomadom. I call
it Brillig, derived from Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky.
      This first week of acquaintanceship with my new computer reminds me of the early days
with Kim. All this getting to know one another, figuring out if the two of us could work
      For our first date, Kim and I met at the Féve for coffee. Very banal for a college date, I
suppose. But there just aren't that many things to do in a town of eight thousand. So coffee it
      I can't properly relay to you what went on there that night. The events themselves were
fairly stereotypical, and I was too nervous to really remember much of anything afterwards. All I
recall is a haze of combined nerves and enjoyment, interspersed with momentary spikes of panic
any time the conversation ebbed and I suddenly feared we'd run out of things to talk about. This
much I can tell you: I arrived early and stared at the door like a man waiting for a doctor's
prognosis. Kim arrived on time. We got coffee. We talked. We ordered a hummus and vegetable
plate. We talked. We purchased more coffee. We talked. It got late. Kim had class. She lived
northeast, off campus, while I lived southwest, on campus. So we parted at the door with a smile
and a hesitation that turned into a brief holding of hands which wasn't quite a shake and wasn't
quite an embrace.
      What we talked about, mostly I can't recall. Probably half of my conscious thoughts were
internal dialogue. How was I doing? What was I going to say next? Was I making a good
impression? Did I enjoy her company? Was I being witty or making a fool of myself? Both?
Was I sweet? Sappy? Overbearing? Aloof? If we were puzzle pieces, would we fit together or
were the tabs and slots and corners of our selves mutually incompatible? Somehow--I don't even
know how it happened--over the course of the evening it seemed like something fell into place.
Despite all my worrying, we were going to mesh after all. When we parted that evening, I knew
we'd be seeing each other again.

     Don Quixote (1946)
      An illustration based on a famous scene from the Cervantes novel, Don Quixote. What
looks like old paper, browned, with ink sketches accented by paint in browns, greys, and reds.
At the top of the picture, a knight charges powerfully forward, his lance piercing his foe, which
happens to be a windmill. In the bottom three quarters, a man with a scraggly moustache and
goatee gazes downhill at the windmills he is about to charge. The back of the man's head is
drawn open, so that we see his thoughts: a tower with a gigantic figure in front, arms raised in
      That's the way most relationships start, I suppose. Not just the romantic type; I mean all
relationships. You have a picture in your head and you fit that picture onto the world.
Sometimes you see dangers where there are none. Other times lurking trouble goes unnoticed.
Often both parties get their impressions banged around for a while before a more realistic
picture comes clear.
      Kim, I thought during those first few days, might just be everything I'd been looking for.
Funny, intelligent, attractive. She reminded me of a girl I'd had a crush on back in high school,
an added bonus. Kim was outgoing to make up for my normal aloofness, steady to make up for
my wackiness. Most of all, she was willing to ask a man out on a date, which was a requirement
if I were to have any dates at Oberlin. Her forwardness was gutsy enough in Oberlin circles
(where nobody asks anyone out) that I knew immediately I'd like her. Practicality, it said. Even
then, I was on the long, lonely road to kwyjibo-dom, and anyone else who stuck out as unusually
mainstream for Oberlin was welcome in my circle. Dating, sex, long walks in the arb, marriage,
kids: all these things ran though my head in momentary flashes of curiosity. Knowing almost
nothing about this woman, my mind still wrapped an entire lifetime around how I imagined
things might be with her.
      What Kim thought of me, I'm not really sure. I think at first she was under the impression I
was "artsy" since I met her in an Art History class. Artsy: whatever that means. Creative,
rebellious, daringly impractical. Impassioned and willing to face a competitive field and limited
employment prospects in exchange for spending life studying beauty. Something Kim admired
but was afraid to do herself. She had artistic inclinations (both practicing and studying), but she
rarely exercised either. Metaphorically speaking, she was an artist deathly afraid to starve. So
she shut it all out rather than take the risk of ending up lost. She may have believed I was what
she didn't dare to be. I hadn't entirely transmogrified into the kwyjibo at that point, so the
dreamer at the core of my being may still have shone through.
      Those first weeks of junior year I found myself free from Ixthyaki, released from my
compulsory scheming of ways to one-up him. I had a single in Spanish house and he was safely
located somewhere up north. Ginevra was abroad for the semester, dramatically lessening my
regular angst levels. With the unexpected abundance of time and good spirit, I jumped into a
number of art-related projects, just for fun. Drawing, painting, classical guitar lessons. Even an
improv comedy ExCo course. All these things I must have mentioned to Kim in our early
conversations. So in her mind I was an artist. Even my name seemed to indicate art--I recall she
commented on our first date that everyone must ask if I was related to the artist. It was nearly a
month before she realized that my major was not some variation of art, but philosophy instead.

      Vase de Fleurs (1956)
      Of his paintings, this is the one most likely to have inspired Ralph Steadman (most famed
for illustrating Hunter S. Thompson's works, such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). It has the
bright colors, the blobby combinations of ink and paint. Everything is recognizable but vaguely
distorted, like you can't tell if it's unreal, intentionally unhealthy, or just the artist exercising a
style. The flowers--two blue and one red/grey--are suggestive blobs rather than realistic
illustrations, but the stems have been drawn in gritty detail that stands out by comparison. You
can see prickly hair running along them. The blurry flowers sit in an intricately drawn vase
which appears cracked and distorted, though it's also finely painted and bejeweled. An odd
contradiction. The vase sits on a flat plane in the foreground and takes up a majority of the
picture. A couple of mountains and a standing figure are small in the distance. As Dalí works
go, this one is prettier than most.
      The process of getting to know the real someone is always full of surprises. Once you give
up your initial assumptions or have them proven wrong, there's often a point where those
windmills in your head stop turning and you take a look to see for the first time what's actually
      First off, everyone is enormously complicated. Some parts come clear in intricate detail,
other aspects are fuzzy, indistinct. Not everything necessarily seems to fit together. Certainly
there are bumps and cracks in every personality. There are some smudged spots, and some
surprises that delight and add to the real value of an individual--make them real gems, you could
say. Heh, heh.
      All these correlations with Vase de Fleurs are pretty vague, I admit. I could be talking about
the finer points of raising sheep, and it would still make sense. Sheep are full of contradictions.
A harsh winter makes for thicker coats which brings more profits than an easy winter, but gentle
winters cost less in terms of food, shelter, and losses. Shepherds raise and protect sheep, but also
eat some of them. [Footnote: This is one reason why I've never been comfortable with the
biblical references to God as a shepherd. A shepherd doesn't do all that work without there being
something in it for him. Is he going to eat us eventually? If so, yikes! Or does he just want to
shave us bald every spring and make clothes from our hair? In that case, how does Sampson fit
in? I swear, the bible's full of more contradictions than sheep. This also brings to mind one of
Reverend Spooner's classics: "The Lord is a shoving leopard."] Sheep like mountains, which are
in the picture. And the distant figure holds a stick/brush which just might be a shepherd's crook.
Sheep--which are like the stems of the flowers because they're covered in hair and are solid,
real-world objects--grow wool which can be used for an enormous number of potential
purposes. Because of their as-yet-indefinite future use, the purpose is blurry like the flowers, but
also attractive, because clothing usually is. The gemstones on the vase represent the profits to be
had, while the chipped paint on the base reminds us of the destructive powers of time and
nature, which counteract the earnings.
      Ridiculous! But fun.
      What does this have to do with Kim? Over the first couple of times we met, we were
scoping each other out, appraising not only overall value (whatever that means) but also
suitability and appeal. Not consciously, of course. Just something that amounts to such:
      So I threw out a pun, and she replied with a grudging "huh" and a wan smile. There's a
      But she loved to play cards. That's a gem of a find!
      Kim was on a very determined pre-law career track, studying Politics now and already
expecting grad school immediately afterwards. Practical, functional. But what the hell was she
doing in an Art History class? How did that contradiction fit in? Odd.
       As Oberlin students go, Kim was prettier than most.
       And then over the course of hours of conversation, slowly I began to notice things about her
that had not been apparent at first. In a mouth of otherwise perfect teeth, one rogue cuspid was
out of line and hung lower than the others. Reminiscent of the flower stems, a fine fuzz graced
her upper lip. Gritty reality interjected itself into the presupposed ideal.
       I'm also reminded of my one and only attempt to make anything with a pottery wheel. It
happened at about that time, part of my artistic kick. Sarah, a studio art major friend of mine
was finishing a set of pottery and offered me the opportunity to do a piece. (This is Sarah L., not
to be confused with Sara G., Seth's girlfriend of junior and senior years. Nor is she connected to
Sarah B.--of Matt and Sarah--who I would meet through Kim and occasionally play cards with
later that year.) Sarah would take care of the drying and firing the clay for me; all I had to do
was shape the thing and come back in a week to decorate my dried creation with glaze. It's like
the pottery version of an all-expense-paid vacation.
       At least that's what I thought. The process of potting is more difficult than it looks.
Pottering? Puttering? Pattering-pittering-pettering? [Footnote: Omigosh! Pitting-patting-potting-
putting-petting. Is that a seven letter quintaphone? No. The roots p*t are already on my list.
Damn! This is a thorny one. Putting could mean what you do on a golf course. Put and putting
are different words, so it might be valid. But putting can also mean "to put something." How
odd is that? Two verbs that are spelled differently in one tense but have the same spelling
(though a different pronunciation) in another tense. Still, I don't think the quintaphone counts. If
it were only a matter of collecting them, sure, I'd definitely add it to the list. You can be laid
back when it's just for fun. But this is a matter of pride, trying to tie Ixthyaki's record. It means
everything. Any answer that isn't bulletproof just isn't good enough. So I'll keep looking. Thanks
for playing, Martin! Contestants on today's episode will receive a $5 gift certificate good
towards the purchase of horseshoes or hand grenades. Try a sport where close really does
       The trick to using a potter's wheel, as I understand it, is mostly a matter of applying finesse.
You plop down a splat of properly soaked clay and start the wheel spinning. Then with your
fingers or a shaping tool you gently apply just the slightest pressure and let the clay practically
push itself into shape around your coaxing. If you're not careful, the whole thing can fall off
balance and the spinning will make the entire structure collapse.
       Sarah also taught me a trick with a piece of wire. It's used to cut into the top of the clay, to
level everything out or remove extra material. The cutting fascinated me, but I was totally
incompetent with it. Every time I'd try it, the slice would come out crooked or go too deep. Then
I'd have to re-smooth or reshape the vase (that's what I'd decided I'd make, as a gift to Kim)
before I was content with it. Time after time I recut the piece, watching my incredible shrinking
lump of clay slowly diminish. I would have started over, but Sarah was supposed to meet some
friends for a study group and needed to go soon. Eventually I sat back and called it quits. "Fuck
it, it's done," I said.
       On the table in front of me sat the Quasimodo of vases. It was still asymmetrical. It was
uneven and rough at the top. It was nearly as wide as it was tall--and its height was all of three
inches. Could I still put a flower in it? Maybe, if it were cut really short. But adding a flower to
that monstrosity would make it a poster child for the dadaist movement: striking beautiful and
shocking ugly side by side.
      I see this now, but at the time it wasn't so clear. All I could tell was I'd actually made
something, and while it was far from technically perfect, it was still unlike anything I'd ever
done before. Dried, painted, and fired, it might yet become a work of art, so-
      So when I should have thrown it away after seeing Sarah's reaction, I kept the thing instead.
And then I told Kim about it, that I was making something for her. Damn fool I was. Trying to
paint the thing was nearly as bad a disaster as the potting portion. Paint ran and blobbed. I kept
blotting out my patterns and had to improvise new ones. When it was done, the thing came out
looking like Charlie Brown's t-shirt, except in brown with a zig-zag of blue. On one side the zig
didn't quite match up with the zag, leaving me with one exceptionally short segment, twice as
steep and only half as long as the others.
      It was horrific.
      The vase gives the best argument I can put forth that a higher power exists. For a person
like myself to have such an intense fascination with art and also have an inversely proportional
ability to create it, it just smacks of a practical joke. Too much malevolent coincidence to be
      When Sarah handed me the final product, it suddenly became apparent just how deformed
my creation was. I brought it home, set it on a shelf, and took a long, hard look at the diminished
      I might have destroyed it, then and there, if Kim hadn't knocked on the door while I was
still musing over the stunted piece of clay. Before opening the door, I wrapped a shirt around the
thing to hide it and then stuffed it under my pillow for good measure.
      We exchanged greetings and a tentative kiss. "Is it ready?" she asked. Normally reserved,
Kim was excitable as a puppy when she knew there was a present waiting for her.
      "Um. Not really. I mean, sorta. Ah ..."
      "Which is it?"
      "I've got it, but it didn't really come out the way I was expecting it to."
      "That's okay, I'm sure it's great." She smiled up at me, anticipation and impatience shining
in those beautiful brown eyes of hers. What could I do? Reluctantly, I unwrapped the object
      Kim accepted the token of my affection gingerly. "Wow! Look at that!" At the time I
assumed she was humoring me. But she had a love of surprises of any kind, so she may have
truly appreciated my offering. It's hard to say. Genuine or not, her enthusiasm made me
uncomfortable with my paltry accomplishment. I felt the need to explain.
      "It's, um. Well, I guess it's supposed to be a toothpick holder."
      "A toothpick holder?"
      "Yeah. Or something like that. It started out as a vase, but it sort of shrank, so-" Unsure
what else to say, I just chuckled weakly. If you can't laugh at yourself, you miss out on nine out
of ten laughs.
      "No, it's great! Really. Thank you!" Kim insisted.
      Then she kissed me. Not just a regular kiss. It was the biggest, longest, and most passionate
kiss we'd shared to date. After that, I was more than happy to continue mangling artistic projects
for the woman.

    Couple with Their Heads Full of Clouds (1936)
      Two picture frames are shaped in the outline of human heads and shoulders. Inside each
frame, the painting contains a table set in the foreground, atop a flat plain. Higher up, in the
region of the "heads" of the picture frames, the background is filled with blue sky and clouds.
      Those early days were spent in great excitement. Kissing, flirting, hanging out. I smiled so
frequently my cheeks ached. I'd catch myself at it during the most inappropriate moments:
standing in the bathroom at a urinal, waiting to get a burger in the dining hall, dissecting a frog
in biology lab. I must have looked crazy. I spent a lot of time on homework that semester, but
the rest of the time I was thinking about Kim. Getting to know her was so much fun.
Discovering and learning so much. It was my first steady relationship of any sort, and it was a
revelation, as well as a pleasure. It was wonderful to be able to slowly open up to someone, or
just to sit there and bask in each other's light. For weeks our feet seemed barely to touch the
ground, our heads were scraping the clouds. It was wonderful.

      The Unsatisfied Desire (1928)
      One of the earlier paintings in which sex becomes a dominant theme in Dalí's work. On the
right rests a disembodied pair of legs, smooth at the crotch where genitalia should be. On the
left, a contorted hand mimics both a vagina and a phallus, clearly a reference to masturbation.
      After the initial burst of amazement, it gradually began to dawn on me that Kim and I were
at odds when it came to certain physical aspects of our relationship.
      In Oberlin-speak: I instigated on several occasions a passive-aggressive approach--inspired
by my thought-clouding demon man nature and fueled by an unhealthy and over-emphasized
societal and commercial focus on the female figure as an object of desire--to demean the
essence of a brilliant-shining bit of soul by associating it with the trappings of its mortal coil.
Misdirecting my wishes to know the soul, I desired to engage in intricate convolutions with its
mechanical carrying case. On each occasion, the shining bit of soul interpreted my dubious
motives and resolved to take a stand for its own untarnished superior essence, elucidating for me
my unhealthy and perhaps unconscious tendencies to objectify as a mere source of amusement
that which is capable of such greatness: the philosophical and moral equivalent of flying to Italy
to eat at a McDonalds. Properly chastened on each occasion, I instead agreed to take part in a
primarily non-corporeal celebration of partnership and unity, based heavily upon the ritual
techniques of dialogue and companionship, punctuated with intermittent and fleeting epidermal
contact designed to reaffirm the psycho-emotional bond and assuage my frustrated baser nature.
      In other words, Kim would not put out.
      The truth: Somewhere between those two descriptions may exist something that provides
an explanation unoffensive but accurate enough to be called the truth, but I'm not going to dig
for it. The woman was reluctant to be physically intimate. Kissing was fine. A little fooling
around with clothes on seemed to be acceptable. Massaging and caressing or being full-out
intertwined on the couch. But nothing more. In the beginning, Kim had been the aggressive one.
All those things I've just described were instigated by her. But then she'd reach some mysterious
point and that'd be it. "I just want to take things slow," she'd say. And I couldn't argue with that,
really. That was fine. (What choice did I have, for that matter, if it wasn't fine?) It had only been
a couple of weeks, I wasn't in a hurry. But then more weeks passed, and more, and we seemed to
be on a plateau, with no explanation offered. Not wanting to be too blunt about prying, I tried to
scout out the issue. Kim wasn't opposed to sex, was, in fact, admittedly interested. She never
insisted on marriage, or intent to marry, or even love as a deciding factor. There weren't any
religious or philosophical objections, so far as I could tell. Just the temporal one: take it slow.
How slow? What sort of wait was I in for? She wouldn't say.
     After six weeks of dating, and for four of those weeks seeing each other on an almost daily
basis, I considered us fairly serious. Several nights a week we shared the same bed, albeit
clothed and working with a PG-rated script. I liked the woman, I wanted a long-term
relationship with her. I wasn't out solely to get into her pants, though of course sex was one
small part of the greater picture. Don't hurry things, sure. Easy to say. Occasional twinges of
panic reminded me that going slow might not be a bad plan, because I really had no idea what I
was getting into. It had been years since my few intimate experiences with Shana, and
everything since then had been completely devoid of romantic involvement. But whatever I was
getting into, I was enthusiastic and very willing to find out.
     I tried my best to make sure Kim understood my intentions. She seemed to follow me, even
seemed to sympathize and maybe to agree with me in principle. But on each occasion I
hesitantly brought up the subject, she concluded the discussion with the same request: more
     Something was clearly wrong, but I just didn't get what it was.

     The Great Masturbator (1929)
     A self-portrait of Dalí, disembodied head with eyes closed, facing down towards the
ground. Out of the back of his head grows a woman's head and shoulders, her face reaching
towards a man's crotch. The man's legs are cut and bleeding. The woman's skin is cracked, as if
she is fragile, transient.
     I turned to the only recourse I had: masturbation. Never in my life have I jerked off with
such frequency and intensity. A regular slapping of the salami has been part of my life since my
entry into teenage years, but the frustrations over my girlfriend brought the pastime to
unprecedented heights. For those magical few weeks after our first meeting, I called a complete
moratorium on spanking the monkey; the act was, after all, simply a poor substitute for the real
thing. If there was a chance of seeing some real action then I could wait a while. Partly I was
convinced that any sort of self-pleasure might jinx whatever shot I had at cooperative
enjoyment; partly it seemed like a means of internally declaring interest and devotion to the
woman (not that I was going to mention the abstinence to her so early on--a statement like that
can scare a girl).
     But after two weeks without stroking off, it felt as if sperm had backed up to my eyeballs
and was about ready to start leaking from my pores. I lay awake each night for an hour, two
hours, sometimes three, thinking of Kim and feeling my erection strain painfully against the
boundaries of time and space and possibility.
     It was the morning after the first night we shared a bed that broke me. Not quite as chaste as
Amish bundling, nonetheless it was clear to me that nothing physical was going to happen in the
immediate future. But before that realization had come hour after hour of Kim's presence.
Gentle kisses, stray caresses, the scent of her hair, the warmth radiating from her body into mine
from a distance of mere inches. She had asked me if she could stay the night. Now picture if you
can an enthusiastic young man, long overdue for a dose of tenderness and nearly twitching from
an uncharacteristic delay of pure physical release. This young man has an active imagination.
For the next hour, scenario after scenario runs though his head. Plans, hopes, fears, dreams: all
the stuff of your typical Sunday night drama on CBS. Only at the end of the hour there isn't a
theatrical climax and sweet denouement. Instead the episode ends with the sentence, "I'd like it
if tonight you could just hold me for a while."
     And so the evening ended for her, while I stared for hours at the wall across the room,
inhaling the sweet scent of her shampoo and wondering if maybe I'd missed something.
     The very next morning I fell back into my onanistic ways. Kim had an early class. Tired
from my hours of musing, I refused to get out of bed. She didn't seem to mind, just smiled and
kissed me gently on the forehead before leaving. With the source of my temptation gone--and
thus all potential for sex--I fell into a deep, relaxing sleep that had been impossible earlier in the
night. I awoke a few hours later, much rested but thinking again of the woman who had spent
the night beside me. I could still smell her on my pillow. A stirring melange of memories and
impressions aroused something within me. It was too much; I couldn't wait any longer. I pulled
off my shirt, and with a few quick jerks emptied my passion into it. And that was the end of
abstinence for Martin Dalí.
     For the next month I was insatiable. No sooner would Kim leave my room than I would
jerk the gerkin. In anticipation of her arrival I would flog the bishop, sometimes twice if she was
more than a few minutes late. Such was my frustrated anticipation when I slept alone I would
wake at night to find myself already halfway across my room, presumably preparing to venture
cross-campus to Kim's place. At such times only choking the chicken would console me.
     I'm not entirely proud of the frequency and inventiveness with which I frantically greased
my flagpole, but once the floodgates had opened it seemed there was no way to close them
again. At one point Kim gave me a picture of her as a memento. After we parted that day I made
it only to the nearest restroom (in the Conservatory) before paying homage to the one-eyed man.
If ever she left an article of clothing in my room--sweatshirts, t-shirts, or socks (but sadly never
once a desirable undergarment)--I would shoot my wad with my face buried in her clothes,
inhaling her lingering scent.
     Whacking off became a habit as regular as eating. Pulling my pud in the library restroom
when I grew tired of studying; shining the bald knob as a break between classes; beating off
after a meal the way one might enjoy a coffee and conversation; up-and-coming (a sexual
variation of the wake-and-bake) with the alarm clock in the morning; shaking the tree while
gazing out my bedroom window; hand jobs with Land's End catalogs found in the mail room.
And of course, if Kim was away, every night before bed I made sure to spend some quality time
with Rosy Palmer and her five sisters.

      Young Virgin Autosodomized by Her Own Chastity (1954)
      A young woman, nude, leans over a balcony. She is viewed from the back and to the left, so
that what can be seen of her are her legs, buttocks, back, one breast, and a cascade of wavy
golden hair that conceals the profile of her face. Around her float curved white shapes: vaguely
rhinoceros horn-like, vaguely phallic. Two of the larger shapes meld into her buttocks, one to
each cheek, so that they are both part of her and separate. Immediately behind the woman, one
of the horn shapes hovers, curving upwards suggestively and poised as if to penetrate her from
      "Kim" I asked one day in early October, "I don't want to presume I have a say in the matter,
so I just want to ask, exactly how slow do you plan on taking things?"
      Something flashed in her eyes then. It was a look of fear, but I mistook it for something
else. Indignation, frustration, anger maybe. She played it off well. Many more days would pass
before I understood some of the truth behind that look. For the moment, all I knew was I needed
some sort of answer. Waiting and wondering just wasn't working any more. Either she would
give me a sense of what was going on, or I'd ... well, I didn't know what I'd do. I hadn't thought
that far.
     "What? What are you talking about? Where'd that come from?"
     I suppose I should have led in to the topic with a warm-up question or two. We'd been
studying quietly in my room, the squeaking of highlighters the only noise either of us had made
for half an hour at least.
     "I'm talking about us. You. Me. The question's always been there. The same thing comes up
every single night we stay together. You're always saying 'take it slow' and I can respect that, but
you never say how slow, or mention why, or even what the plan is. I don't have any idea what
you're thinking. Isn't it about time you let me in on it?"
     "What plan? What is it you want?"
     "Well, um." I'd brought it up, but I couldn't just flat-out say it. "We've been dating for what,
like five weeks now? And you know, I've never even seen your belly button. For all I know, you
don't even have one."
     Kim clutched her stomach through her shirt. "Don't be silly. Of course I have one."
     "That's not really the point. What I'm saying is I've been sharing a bed with you part time
for three weeks now. You can't say I pressured you, you're the one who asked me to stay."
     "Are you saying you didn't want to?"
     "No! Not at all. I wanted to, very much. It's just that..."
     "What? What's the point of all this?"
     "It's just that by now I thought we'd be ... more intimate, I guess."
     Kim's eyes flashed again with some hidden emotion. "Intimate? As in sex? Is that it?"
     I just nodded. That was it, pure and simple. Nothing more to say.
     "Jesus, Martin. If all I wanted to do was screw someone, I'd go out and sleep with
somebody. That's not the important part. I'm not hanging out with you because I need sex. Is that
all you're looking for?"
     "No! Kim, I'm with you because I want to be with you. That's all. I guess I didn't bring up
the conversation very well. I'm just trying to find out if at some point there might be, uh, sex. Is
that an option? Sometime?"
     For a few moments, I thought that was it. Game over. Kim fumed and seemed about ready
to snap something out. But then she stopped for a deep breath. "Yeah. Sometime. Sure. Maybe
not soon, but sometime. I just don't want to get into things too fast." Was she trying to convince
me, or herself?
     I had so many questions. Why? Why were we waiting? What would be different between
now and then? How long? Another month? A year? Just knowing a rough date would at least
give me something to set my sights on. As it was, every moment was a question, and it was
maddening. Why was she so sensitive about the topic? Everything was going her way, after all.
Was there anything else I could do to reassure her? Help things out?
     Before I could even open my mouth, she sensed my intention to speak.
     "Please, Martin. I need to finish this for class. Can we talk about this later? There's nothing
else to say right now anyway."
     Like hell there wasn't. But still I heard myself acquiesce. "Yeah," I said. "Yeah, sure.
      Crucifixion (1954)
      A crucifixion scene like no other. The cross is three dimensional (perhaps four
dimensional) and hovers above a checkered plain. The man crucified hangs in front of the cross,
his shadow cast back as if it is what is actually affixed to the structure. Below the cross, Gala,
Dalí's wife, gazes upwards in observance.
      Oh, the lengths I went to try to change her mind. What a burden I made sure she knew I
bore. The frustration, the impatience, the emotional neglect I suffered. I vacillated wildly
between trying to convince her to take me, and trying to make her guilty for not doing so. No
doubt I was the classic pain in the ass.
      Perhaps, it occurred to me, her reluctance was a matter of not enough romance in our
relationship. I wooed her with everything I could think of. Flowers, chocolates, poems,
messages, jewelry, more badly-wrought works of art, dinner at the Foxgrape (where, while
trying to order a dessert named to suggest a delightful dance of fruit and cocoa, I instead
requested a slice of "chocolate waltzberry razz"). Kim loved all of the gifts and the attention, but
it didn't change anything. Nobody was gettin' any, and that's just the way it was gonna be for a
      When that tactic didn't work, I just settled into the role of the neglected one. Mistreated but
resigned. A little whining here, a little sulking there. There didn't seem to be any other recourse,
so I just put up with the situation, occasionally reminding Kim of my objections. For her part,
she said as little as possible about the subject. Together we remained less happy than we could
have been, but happier than either one of us alone. Very utilitarian.

     Rome (1949)
     A commissioned piece depicting the ancient city. Two statues of angels dance in the
foreground, surrounded by a bright green splash of trees. In the background, a golden arch
leads back to the sprawling city. A beam of light shines down through the clouds to illuminate
the scene. The overall mood is pleasant, appealing.
     During fall break, we skipped town and decided to roam (Rome) south for a final taste of
warmth and sunshine on the beaches of northern Florida. We knew after that we'd see little but
the big grey Unicloud for the next many months.
     Once we got down there, I remembered that there is a Salvador Dalí museum in Tampa. I'd
never been particularly interested before, but between my mangled Oberlin identity and our
newfound interest in art history, I couldn't wait to go. Other than the melted watches and the one
poster in my dorm room, I actually knew very little about the artist. The exhibit was quite a
revelation. The man did so much, with so much variety. Not only could he paint with
photographic realism, he also sculpted and even worked on movies. His works ranged from the
realistic, to the surreal, to the just plain weird. Some beautiful, some ugly, some experimental,
and all of it eye catching. Freudian psychology flowed through much of his work, as did
everything else from food to world events.
     Apparently, he was a shameless showman and exceptionally arrogant. People loved him,
people hated him. He delighted in the absurd, but-
     But this isn't a book about Salvador, this is a book about Martin. Martin who couldn't
impress a third-grader with his artwork, except maybe through his writing. Martin the bright-
eyed idealistic boy from Florida who found himself simultaneously improved by, amused by,
and frustrated by the sea of ideas he was awash in, all generated by one small town in Northern
Ohio. Martin the man now staying in a hotel in a strange city with his girlfriend of nearly two
months. Martin the exceptionally horny and increasingly desperate, who has just hit upon one
last card to play before he concedes the game of love.
      The museum contained nearly thirty of the artist's paintings. Halfway through the gallery,
between Dalí's The Beggar and The Judges, Kim and I took a seat on a bench to rest our tired
legs. I put my arm around her shoulders, she put hers around my waist. We sat and talked of the
trip so far and the trip to come, and of how good a time we were having. It had been a good
time--an excellent time. More fun than I'd known something as tiring and difficult as a road trip
with a hectic schedule could be.
      With a contented sigh, we both fell silent for a moment.
      "You know I love you, don't you?" I said, caught up in the moment. And I did. No, I didn't.
Hell, maybe I did love her. It doesn't matter now anyway. I just wanted to so badly. Not because
of the sex but just because I needed to be in love. I was sure the sooner I was in love, the sooner
everything would be better, and so I talked myself into the proposition. Tell her you love her,
and it'll change everything. Or so I thought.
      Neither one of us moved. We just sat, facing straight ahead. But out of the corner of my
eye, I could see her profile. Slowly, a soft, sweet sort of smile worked its way across her lips.
Some days, I lived for that smile. "I love you too, Martin."
      I tightened my grip on her shoulder, and she her grip on my waist, and for a moment
everything was changed. But then we got up, walked the rest of the gallery, and went outside to
do more of our touristy things. By the end of the day, we collapsed tiredly back into our hotel
room. And there, love or no love, it seemed things had not changed at all.

     Masked Mermaid in Black (1939)
     A design for a costume to be used during the 1939 World's Fair in New York. A form-fitting
outfit of black rubber, accented with pink ribbons at the thighs, long pink gloves, and pink
starfish at the shoulders. Black spikes descend the spine and run along the back of each leg,
which terminates in a fringe of black. A black mask covers the eyes, but a startling heart-shaped
hole in the front reveals the woman's chest from breasts to belly button.
     Perhaps the best outcome of the Florida expedition was Kim's choice of Halloween
costume. She went as a mermaid, based upon the artist's Masked Mermaid in Black. The original
design had actually been used in the World's Fair, and a painting of the costume had been
included in the museum exhibit.
     A mermaid in black: alluring keeper of unknown treasures, shrouded in dark mystery. It
was perfect.
     Unlike the original, which had been crafted of rubber, Kim opted to make her costume out
of black spandex. No doubt the substitution was more comfortable, and certainly it was more
readily available. I had no complaints, as it was still delightfully form-fitting. Instead of a series
of spikes running down the spine and the back of each leg, my girlfriend used larger pieces of
dark cloth to imitate the various fins and frills. More cloth covered her shoes, giving the illusion
that her legs ended in long flippers as well. She nailed the look of the costume, right down to the
pink gloves with black nails, pink ribbons on her thighs, and the starfish at each shoulder.
     "What do you think?" Kim asked, modeling for me in the privacy of her bedroom.
     "Stunning! But I think you forgot part of the costume."
      "Oh? What's that?"
      "The original version was open in front from chest to belly button." To my regret--but not
surprise--Kim's costume remained intact in front. Still, I wasn't about to complain. The woman,
like a majority of Oberlin students, tended to wear baggy, layered clothing. Never had I gotten
such a look at the entirety of my girlfriend's figure. Whatever her reasons for avoiding sex, I
could scratch self-consciousness about her figure off the list. No one with any shame could ever
wear an outfit like that.
      "Call it the designer's interpretation," she said.
      "Okay, fine. But would you mind turning around for me again?"
      "Oh, you ..." She laughed and mimicked throwing something at me, but then complied with
another spin.
      "I don't suppose we could just stay here and do this all night, can we?" I asked.
      Behind her mask, I could see her blush. She smiled but shook her head. "No way. Not after
all the work I put into this thing. Hey, what are you supposed to be anyway?"
      "Hold on," I said, as I slipped on the baseball mask. I was wearing a baseball glove, too. In
it was a loaf of bread--rye to be specific. Another loaf was tied to a belt loop, dangling at my
right hip. From each shirt pocket another piece of caraway-flavored bread peeked out. "You still
don't know?"
      "Ummm, no."
      "Observe the catcher's mask. Note the rye bread. This makes me 'The Catcher in the Rye.'
Get it?"
      Her groan of misery informed me that she did indeed get it. That made three groans so far
that night; I'd gotten two earlier when I stopped in the lounge to demonstrate to a couple of
housemates. Tallying the number of groans was going to be a huge part of the fun of my
costume, I thought.
      Oh, and it was. Another moan of disgust from one of Kim's housemates. Two from Polly
and Dave, the inseparable non-couple, when we picked them up at Dave's house. Dave was
dressed as the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Polly as some sort of nature spirit, which meant that
she wore a very short hula skirt, a flesh-colored sports bra, a bunch of glitter around her eyes,
and a couple of flowers in her hair. What is it about Oberlin women? Day after day they conceal
themselves in old baggy clothes, and then twice a year for Halloween and the Drag Ball they
bare practically everything. The same thing for Safe Sex night at the 'Sco, too, which happens
once a semester. Women have been known to go naked to Safe Sex night. Many more have
gone topless. Except for Halloween, these aren't high-alcohol events, because they're sponsored
by Oberlin and you have to buy each drink rather than just an entry fee. I don't claim to
understand, but I ain't gonna complain, neither.
      On All Hallows Eve, though, the alcohol was flowing freely. There was a smattering of
parties to choose from, but the big one was held at Keep Cottage. Keep parties in general were
almost guaranteed to be raucous, second only to Harkness when it came to a reputation for
chaos. This evening seemed particularly likely to be interesting. Not that most all-campus
parties weren't packed to the gills with teeming, dripping, staggering humanity. It was just that
on normal days Keep could get wild enough, so their parties always had a respectable head start.
      Strangely, it was still quiet when we got there at 10:30. Campus parties normally ran from
10 till 2, usually being busiest from 11 till the end. But there should have been more people than
we found. Half a dozen chatting in the front room, a few more on the porch smoking, a few
house members in the kitchen talking animatedly and preparing for the party.
      The four of us paid our $3 to a witch at the door, received our plastic cups and a red X on
the back of our preferred hands. It took us a minute to find the beer, because nobody was
standing near it. Normally, an official paid student bartender would be on duty to dispense the
beverage. Once we found the keg, we were happy to help ourselves. I downed mine and grabbed
a quick refill, an unusual luxury. At the height of the party it would take 15 minutes of waiting
in line for a refill, pushing and screaming amidst a small mob at the table to get the bartender's
attention. For some reason, drunk people don't seem to appreciate lines. It was common to get
your beer and immediately get back in line so as to be up front by the time you were ready for a
refill. By contrast, this was first-class service. Kim followed my logic and finished her beer
moments after I did. Over the course of the next quarter of an hour, we stood by the keg and
stocked up as best we could. Dave and Polly were taking their time, but each time I finished my
drink Kim gave me an impish look and finished hers as well. Despite the fact that I went
through four glasses in less than half an hour I knew I'd be fine, because as soon as it got
crowded I'd give up on the keg and switch over to the more easily obtainable water. By the time
the party was over, I'd be more tired than tipsy, or close. Kim, though, only weighed something
like two-thirds of what I did. In a few hours she'd still be more than buzzed.
      I might have checked with her about her plans, but the area around the keg was getting
crowded anyway, as more partiers began to arrive. Seven more groans had been added to my
evening's costume tally, and it was time to mingle and start racking them up in earnest. I filled
up my fifth cup when Kim wasn't looking and led my friends into the front room.

     The Wounded Bird (1928)
     Based on a poem by André Breton, the painting depicts a scene where the author shoots a
bird, which plummets to the sea. The painting contains the image of a large thumb, seen
beneath white, water-like ripples. Below the thumb, a small bird is angled with its head to the
ground, as if falling. The background of the painting is covered with sand, bringing the finger
and bird to the forefront.
     Fifty-seven or so groans later, I managed to lose count. All at once I was in a new circle of
people, standing in the front yard. They'd just walked up, primed from some off-campus party.
My friend Manny was part of the group, so I went over to see him. He was dressed in a clown
wig and a red nose of the pinch-on variety. We exchanged greetings. He declared his intention
to go inside and get a beer, if there was any left. Several members of the group (of about a
dozen) agreed and started to head towards the Cottage. But they all stopped when Manny asked,
"Hey, Martin, what the hell are you supposed to be, man?" Guess they were curious. I explained
the "Catcher in the Rye" joke, and with a mass moan of pain and horror they all broke ranks and
fled. "One-two-three-five-eight, oh, fuck it," I said. "Who the hell cares anyway?" The principle
counted more than the precise numbers. Maintaining an interest in pointless statistics is a
difficult proposition while under the influence. Some statisticians might disagree, but they
probably haven't had enough to drink yet.
     I found myself standing alone in the yard outside of Keep. Where the hell was my
girlfriend, anyway? There may not have been any sweet lovin' on the agenda for the evening, but
an arm around me seemed like a damn good improvement over the status quo.
      Kim and Dave were on the ample front porch. Polly, I was informed, was in the restroom.
With her nature spirit costume, she'd been getting quite a bit of attention during the course of the
evening, but she only had eyes for Dave. It was futile for the poor woman to keep trying, but she
wasn't giving up hope. For his part, Dave had been attempting to make conversation with a she-
devil who was standing next to him on the porch, finishing a cigarette. He seemed to be having
some mild success now, after being hindered by Polly's presence earlier.
      "Maaartinnn!" Kim slurred, lurching forward from her seat on the railing to give me a hug.
Ahh, that's the stuff.
      "How ya doing?" I asked her.
      "Oh, jus fine. Better'n that, really. I'm downright dunky-hory. Hunky dory. Oh, jeez, I sound
like you." She giggled at her spoonerism, which informed me clearly that she'd had more than
plenty to drink. That certainly wasn't normal Kim behavior.
      She settled back against the railing, then tried to hop up backwards to sit on it. Her first
couple of attempts failed, leaving her standing on the porch. "Sweetie, do you want some help
getting up there?" I asked.
      "No, I got it." And with that, she scrunched up her face in concentration and launched
herself upwards and backwards. It was too hard. Before any of us could move, she went over
backwards, head-first into the bushes below the porch.
      "Oh shit!" said Polly, who had arrived just in time to see Kim's feet disappear.
      I ran over to the steps and circled around to where I'd last seen Kim. Between the height of
the porch and the height of the railing, she had about a five-foot drop. The bushes would have
slowed her, but it was still enough of a fall that she could have gotten hurt.
      Dave shouted from the porch, "Are you all right?"
      I could see Kim sitting on the ground, brushing herself off with one hand. Definitely a good
sign. I arrived by her side as she started to stand up. "Yeah, I think I'm--ow!" She said this as she
put her weight on her right hand. It gave beneath her and she crumpled back to the ground,
fluttering helplessly like a wounded bird. "Ow, ow! I think I hurt my wrist." Air hissed through
Kim's teeth as she tried to gasp and clench her jaw at the same time.
      "Hang on a second. Let me help you up," I said. I caught her under the arms and lifted her
up. "Are you okay?"
      "Yeah, it's just--aah, no. Damn, my wrist hurts." She held her right hand just above her left,
as if trying to cradle it but afraid to touch it.
      "What about the rest of you?"
      "I think everything else is fine. Maybe a coupla scratches. I landed on my side. But I think
my wrist hit first. Mmmh!" She writhed in pain.
      "Can you move it?"
      "A little, but it hurts."
      I looked around, taking stock of the situation. A few people had gathered around, but
mostly the event had gone unnoticed. Probably it was a sprain at worst, though underneath the
glove it might be hard to tell. I definitely didn't want to mess with it. What were you supposed to
do with a sprain? I fought against the beer raging through my skull, searching for applicable
wisdom. Ice! You needed ice. "All right," I said, guiding Kim by the shoulder. "Let's get you
seated and then we'll get some ice for your wrist. Try to get the glove off in a minute if you can."
Kim said nothing. Whether or not she heard me I don't know.
      A couple of gawkers were standing on the end of the steps, repeatedly asking concerned but
empty questions. "Get out of the way! Let her sit down!" I growled, pushing one of them away
from us. He stumbled backward and sat down hard, but seemed unhurt. His friend caught on and
scampered out of the way before I had to shove her, too. As Kim took a seat, Dave and Polly
rushed over to console her.
      "Ice!" I said.
      "Huh?" Dave looked blankly at me.
      "Never mind. I'll do it. Stay here and keep an eye on her. She hurt her wrist. Got it?"
      I leaped up the steps in two bounds and shoved my way through the door. The room was
packed, but I walked a straight and swift line to the beer table. Some people got out of my way,
others just bounced off me. So that's what happens when Martin gives up the Martin-step, I
found myself thinking. It wasn't until I got to the beer line that I met serious resistance. A solid
wall of humanity ringed the table, obstinately determined to get another ten ounces of cheap
alcohol, their God-given right. Shoving my way through just wasn't going to work. "I'm the new
bartender!" I shouted, and pointed behind the table. They let me through. The real bartender
knew her shift wasn't up yet and ignored me as long as I didn't interrupt her beer pouring
      Once I reached the keg, I began to wonder how to carry the ice. I was just about to take off
my shirt and put the ice in it, but when I put down my baseball glove the bagged loaf of bread
fell out and gave me my answer. I dumped out the bread onto the table and frantically scooped
ice into the plastic bag.
      Leaving the beer line was much easier than approaching had been. Everyone was more than
happy to make room for somebody leaving the table, because they knew it put them that much
closer. My last glimpse of the table revealed drunken and ravenous hordes tearing into the rye
bread like it was human flesh and they were real zombies instead of merely being in costume.
      Within moments I was back outside, pressing my icy package against Kim's wounded wrist.
She was still wearing the pink mermaid glove. I gave her a minute to let the ice numb her skin
before insisting that we take the glove off. "We have to get a good look at your wrist, make sure
nothing looks badly broken." She nodded reluctantly. Softly, I took the ice from her left hand
and set it on the steps by our feet. "Here," I said, placing her left hand on my right shoulder.
"Squeeze if you need to."
      I slowly slid the pink material back from her arm. Thankfully the cloth was fairly loose-
fitting, unlike the spandex the rest of the outfit was made of. Kim whimpered slightly when the
gradually inverting glove slid past her wrist, but her grip on my shoulder didn't increase
noticeably. Then it slid free of her fingers without a hitch. She gave an odd sort of laugh, unlike
anything I'd ever heard from her. I let out a breath I didn't know I'd been holding and took a
close look at her arm.
      Other than an already detectable swelling, everything seemed okay. Now I'll be the first to
admit I don't know medical science from hocus-pocus, but I could tell that there weren't any
bones poking out through the skin. There wasn't any blood, and nothing stuck out at a weird
angle, either. Plus, she could move her wrist at least a little. This, in my book, equated with
being non-serious enough that examination could wait until tomorrow.
      "You gonna be okay?" I asked.
      "I think so. Martin, I want to go home."
     "Sure. You got it. Let's go. Just keep the ice on your wrist as much as possible."
     "It's really cold."
     "Of course it is. Good to know your dain's not bramaged from the fall. The more you can
take it now, the better your hand will feel later."
     She sighed and chuckled that odd laugh again. Over the next few days I'd begin to associate
the sound with the pain from her injury. "Okay. I'll take it as long as I can."
     "Good. All right, let's get going." We said a hasty goodbye to Dave and Polly before
walking south down Main Street.

      Metamorphosis of Narcissus (1937)
      Narcissus, from Greek myth, was a man so in love with himself that he became enraptured
with his own reflection and died trying to capture it. Tradition has it that after his death he was
transformed into the flower Narcissus. In this painting, the body of a man is seen leaning over a
pool of water. To his right, in an eerie mimicry of his form, a hand holds aloft an egg, out of
which a Narcissus flower grows. All is not what it seems to be. Self-absorption is being
transformed into something beautiful.
      I ministered to Kim continually for the next couple of days. That first night I made sure that
she drank plenty of water and downed more than a couple of ibuprofen pills before letting her go
to sleep. As her hand continued to swell, I insisted that she keep ice on it as long as possible.
And when she woke me, whimpering, a couple of hours later, because she couldn't find a
comfortable place to rest her arm, I ungrudgingly slid out of bed and stood beside her while she
stretched out. Gently I smoothed her hair and whispered softly to her until she fell asleep again.
      Kim's bed was the same model as the standard-issue Oberlin dorm bed. Even though it
came with the house, very likely it had been stolen from campus in its youth. Its headboards
were unmistakably from the same design. Normally the beds came with one headboard and a
shorter footboard, but it was common for the pieces to be mixed and matched. In this case, she
had two headboards, which she had inverted before attaching the frame to them. This gave Kim
a bed that stood three feet above the floor, leaving plenty of storage space underneath. The
campus beds were also distinctive because of their shape: as narrow as a single, but extra long,
though still not quite long enough for someone of my height. I didn't mind. On most beds my
ankles hang over the edge; beds with substantial headboards and footboards usually forced me
to sleep at an angle or curled up. By contrast, the Oberlin bed left just the tips of my toes
exposed--a relative luxury. But the narrowness made them suited only for one, or an
exceptionally cozy two. With Kim's injury, there really wasn't room for me on the bed.
      I stumbled across the room to her arm chair and cleared away a couple of sweaters before
sitting down. It was large and well-padded, but unfortunately didn't recline. Still, it would do.
There was a couch out in the living room, but I wanted to stay within earshot in case Kim
needed anything. I tilted my head back in the least neck-stiffening pose I could find. Within
moments, I drifted back into the land of Nod, to dream that I was Ralph Nader's right-hand man,
challenging the entire world to one-on-one arm wrestling matches. If we won, our opponents
were supposed to take on some planet-improving task. Surprisingly, even though we lost every
match, every opponent still accepted our victory conditions. It was the most fulfilling dream I've
ever had.
      Just past nine in the morning on Sunday, Kim woke me with a groan. I sat up, winced for a
moment, and then realized with surprise that I didn't need to. No hangover, no stiff neck, no
sleepy daze. Just sunshine and good cheer. A breeze wafting in through the window whispered
sixty-five degree perfection.
     Kim groaned again. I stepped over to the bed to see how she was doing. It looked like she
was still sleeping, or fighting hard not to wake up. She was lying on her back, right arm splayed
away from her body, close to the edge of the bed. It didn't look good. Very swollen and
developing a nasty bruise. My girlfriend twitched a couple of times but didn't open her eyes.
Any minute though she'd be awake and hurting. I scampered out of the room to retrieve some
more generic painkillers and a large glass of water. When I returned, her eyes were open.
     "How do you feel?"
     "Ungh. Horrible. Like I chugged beer and fell off a porch." It seemed like an attempt at
humor. That was a good sign. Still, I couldn't help but feel guilty for my own good cheer.
     Wordlessly, I held out the ibuprofen and water to Kim. She started to reach with her right,
grimaced, stopped, and sat up to use her left hand instead. She popped the pills and downed the
entire glass of water. "Thanks," she gasped, as she handed the empty cup back. I put it on the
     "How's your wrist?"
     "Not good. Hurts a lot. Especially when I move. Looks like hell, too."
     "How's your head?" I put one hand up to cup the side of her face, my thumb gently brushing
against her temple.
     "Slightly better than my wrist." She laughed oddly like I'd heard the night before.
     "Here, let me try something." I placed a finger lightly against each temple and moved them
in a slow, circular motion. For a moment she winced, but then she closed her eyes and exhaled
     "Ah. That helps," she whispered. A hint of a smile tugged at the edge of her lips, the first
physical sign of well-being that morning. Even as it faded, that little smile convinced me
everything was going to be okay with a little time.
     When she started to feel better, I walked Kim over to the Oberlin clinic. "I hope it's not
Herpes," I said as we approached the building. Kim gave me a strange look, until she
remembered the clinic's rumored tendency to investigate STDs nearly every time a student
reported an ailment. It was a running joke that anything from a sore throat to a stubbed toe might
prompt a thorough swabbing for tests. Personally, I thought it wise that the clinic frequently
checked students for sexually transmitted diseases. As a whole, college students can be pretty
reluctant to face that sort of truth. Much better to detect the disease early than let it spread. I
wouldn't be surprised if half the time it was an STD, and the students just pretended--outside of
the clinic--that it wasn't. I'd certainly be embarrassed to admit something like that to friends or
parents. Why not invent strep throat or a bladder infection, or whatever fits the symptoms?
Cover your own ass, support the general campus rumor, and make it easier for the next guy to
hide his shameful medical history, too. Having only been to one campus, I can't say for sure, but
I'd bet good money that nine out of ten campuses have a similar story about their medical
     In our case, Kim was diagnosed with a sprained wrist, given some prescription painkillers,
and sent home with a bandage and orders to take it easy for a week or two. No pap smear
necessary. Just keep the injury on ice for a day or two to reduce swelling, we were told. I was
commended for having thought of the same thing the night before. Very likely it had helped, the
doctor said.
      The one casualty from the examination was Kim's spandex shirt. The tight fabric had been
constricting her forearm and was in the way when the doctor wanted to wrap the wrist. Since we
hadn't thought to bring another shirt, the doc's solution was to cut the fabric from wrist to elbow
with a pair of scissors. She trimmed off the excess material, leaving the shirt half long-sleeved
and half short-sleeved. Removing the rest of the top later would be no small feat. Probably it
would have to be cut off, too, rather than squeezing the elastic material over her wounded arm.
Something to worry about later.
      For the rest of the day and most of the next, I took as good a care of the woman as I could.
Cooking, keeping her company, renting movies, coming up with entertaining things one can do
with just an off hand, fetching water and painkillers as needed. We tried sharing the bed again
on Sunday with results similar to the night before. Kim tried to send me home this time, but I
refused and willingly made myself comfortable in her arm chair yet again. Strangely, Monday
morning I felt even better than I had the morning before. There was some initial tightness in my
neck, but it faded quickly. I didn't know what had gotten into me, but I wasn't going to
      Mid-morning on Monday, it suddenly occurred to me that this entire time Kim had been
suited solely in closer-than-skin, form-fitting lycra, and I hadn't taken even one lecherous look at
her since the party. A quick glance in her direction confirmed that no, she wasn't wearing a bra,
and yes, it was a little chilly in the room. I was shocked that I'd been so oblivious. An hour or
two, sure, but this had been days. I hadn't thought once about sex or trying to figure out what
was going on in her mind. Hadn't even stepped out for my normal beating of the meat. And the
strangest thing of all was I felt better than I had in weeks. Better about Kim, better about us, just
better in general. I'd been content to help. No, not just content; I was actually happily enjoying
every moment of our time together. Sleeping across the room in her chair had been far more
satisfying than sleeping in her arms whilst dreaming of future carnality. Tenderly massaging her
temples yesterday morning had meant more than any lusty kiss.
      What the hell was going on?
      I'll tell you what was going on. Martin was growing up. Martin was learning what it was
like to open his heart and care for someone. Martin was discovering the gift of giving, the joy of
helping, the contentment that could come from not putting himself first every fucking minute of
every fucking day.
      For the first time in my life, I think I really began to understand someone else. Not just as
some random factor in my own life, but as an entity equal to myself. A being just as
complicated, just as sensitive, just as wonderful and exciting and harried and awhirl in the world
as I was. It was Narcissus in reverse. For just one second I stopped staring at my own reflection,
and to my utter surprise everything else was beautiful, too.
      It's like eating vanilla ice cream for dessert every day because you love vanilla ice cream.
And then after twenty years, someone tries to hand you chocolate. You piss and moan. You
scream for your vanilla ice cream. But tonight it's chocolate or nothing. You won't have it. You
gripe some more, try to trade with the person next to you, but they've got something even worse,
like pistachio. You beg for vanilla. You plead for it. You insist that it's just not fair, the world
owes you vanilla ice cream. All to no avail. There's nothing available except for a bowl of
swiftly melting chocolate. So finally, with eyes squinted and nose plugged, you drop a hesitant
little dollop on your tongue. Panicked, you swallow it and chase it down with half a glass of
water, hoping it won't ruin your taste buds forever. But wait ... what was that? Right before the
water rinsed everything away, was that the taste of something good? You smack your lips,
pondering. Maybe. All right, you figure, you'll try another. Nothing else to do anyway, right? So
you try it again. And it's not horrible. Sort of okay, actually. Maybe even good. Another
spoonful. Yes, it is good. It's wonderful! You devour it, ask for seconds. Thirds. And then ... and
then ... hey! Maybe you'll try some of that strawberry ice cream people have been raving about.
And then you discover there are more flavors. Exotic flavors. Like peppermint, and chocolate-
covered cherry, and--oh my god!--Rocky Road. Eventually you try your neighbor's pistachio,
and it's good, too. And then there's sherbet! Frozen yogurt, italian ice, will it never end? Please,
God, never let it end! It's so wonderful! So many discoveries, so much variety. And just when
you think you've seen it all, someone comes along and offers you this stuff called--what was it
again? Cake? What's cake?
     I think you get the point. I'd been living in a one-flavor world, but suddenly Martin wasn't
the only bottle in the spice rack. Sure, all along I knew there were other flavors out there, I just
never really believed that they might be anywhere near as enjoyable. But then Kim's injury
blind-sided me, and before I could stop to think about it I found myself happier helping her than
I ever had been trying to help myself to a piece of her.

     The Beggar (1943)
     Two individuals struggling with a rearing horse. Rough, sketchy looking. Derivative of
classic style. In front, a man and a child beg for alms.
     I got back from my Monday afternoon class to find Kim pecking away at her keyboard with
her left hand. Watching her work though each word at a snail's pace was almost painful.
     "How's it going?" I asked.
     "Okay. A little slow. By the time I get to the end of a sentence, I keep forgetting what I
started out trying to say. It may take a while." (Read between the lines, Martin: Her tone of
voice says it's awful and she's going to be up all night if you don't lend a hand.)
     "Why don't I type for you?"
     "Oh, you don't have to do that." (Oh, God, are you serious? Would you? Please?)
     "No, I'm happy to."
     "Really, I can get through." (Do you really mean it? Really?)
     "It's no problem."
     "I'm making it up as I go, so it could take a while." (Last chance to say no. Please, please
don't say no.)
     "Do I have to go over there and dump you out of the seat?"
     "Thanks Martin! That's so nice of you!" She bounded out of the chair like a man pardoned
at 11:59. She gave me a one-armed hug and a peck on the cheek in thanks.
     It was tough going, at first. Slow, laborious. And strange, hearing how Kim thinks and
writes academically. If you think you know someone, have them walk you through a five-page
problem as they work out the kinks and discover a conclusion. Sometimes she spelled out in
many steps what I thought was obvious; in other cases she pounced on conclusions it took me
many minutes to deduce. It's both fascinating and a little frightening to see how different the
inner workings of a brain can be from person to person.
     Several hours later, we finished. There was some minor editing to take care of, but she
could do that herself without too much difficulty. Kim, who had been reading over my shoulder,
reached around the chair to hug me with her good arm, planting a kiss on the top of my head.
"Thanks, Martin. That really helped. You've been so sweet the last couple of days."
     A thought that I'd been idly stirring for a few days finally crystallized. I found myself
snuffling in muffled ironic laughter. Confused, my girlfriend drew back. "What's so funny?"
     "It's not funny. Something just hit me, that's all. It's hard to explain. I really haven't been all
that sweet. Or rather, maybe I've been nice to you, but that's because that's what I am: sweet.
Most people would think it was out of the ordinary if I wasn't sweet. You just think my being
nice is unusual because I've spent so much time around you being an ass."
     "Oh, Martin, that's not true!"
     "It is. I've been snippy, I've been impatient. I keep pushing you for something you're not
ready for and insist on prying for an explanation when clearly you're not comfortable talking
about it. Over the past few weeks, I've had a rare opportunity to spend so much quality time with
a wonderful young woman, and I've blown way too much of that time being upset over
something like sex. But not just that, it's more general. You've continually shown me all the best
of yourself, and in exchange I've been playing reruns from 'The Worst of Martin.' That fact that
you think I've been unusually sweet the last few days tells me I've been doing something very
     "Martin, you have been sweet. You've taken such good care of me. I just wanted to thank
you for that. That's all."
     "You're welcome. I've been happy to help you out. But that's not all there is. I'm trying to
say that the way I've been the last couple of days is the way I should have been all the time. You
deserve that much. Hell, I deserve it too. The last couple of days have made my life better,
maybe even more so than yours. That's why I want to apologize. I'm sorry I haven't given us
everything we deserve. Can you forgive me?

     The Judges (1933)
     A heavy pen-and-ink sketch of a figure riding horseback, standing tall and holding aloft a
document. A verdict, perhaps?
     Kim hugged me from behind again, burying her face in my neck. "Of course. You shouldn't
have to ask. You shouldn't have to apologize. I couldn't be happier. Just ... thank you. Thank you
for being so wonderful."
     We waited in silence for a moment.
     "You know I love you, don't you?"
     Words failed me. I took her hand in mine and pressed her fingers to my lips. She seemed to
understand. Time passed and passed. As far as I knew, there was no going forward, but I didn't
want to break the spell and have to step back. So I just held on for all I was worth.
     I still don't know what to believe about my feelings for Kim, whether or not love was part
of the picture, but I do know I cared for her deeply. Maybe I'm overly stingy with the term.
Anyway, that the woman loved me meant far more than I'd expected it would. It was touching,
inspiring, something to live up to. I very badly wanted to be in love, wanted to experience that
magical state where your problems are all instantaneously solved.
     Probably I've read way too many books. But I still believe it, even now, that it'll happen one
of these days. And then I'll have my reason to live, my reason to succeed, my reason to eat
broccoli and exercise and say no thanks to that second dessert. Somewhere out there is the
person who is just dying to be there when I have a joke or a story or an intriguing dream, the
someone whose gaze I can meet knowingly from across the room when a third party makes an
ass of himself or a stupid commercial comes on. Someone who, when we hear the quote
"Religion is the opiate of the masses," will quietly discover in parallel with me Marx's secret
"mopiate of the asses." I need a partner for cards, a challenger in Scrabble, someone to catch and
correct all my run-on sentences. Someone to smile at me in the morning so that my first words
aren't "oh, fuck, I'm late" after I just realized I've hit the snooze bar too many times. Actually, I'll
have to be so considerate of this woman that I'll stop using the snooze at all, and finally I'll be
awake and ready and on time every morning. I want someone to come home to. Someone to
split those odious household chores with. I'll vacuum and do the dishes if she'll please, please do
all the laundry. Someone to get sloppy drunk with, someone to explore America with and then
tour the world. Travelling alone in some exotic land is empty without the knowledge that when
you stop at the hotel for the night, you're going to have familiar arms around you in those alien
surroundings. Someone to protect me from those night-time voices passing under the window,
the ones that remind me I'm alone and unfulfilled and lying in a dark room while the rest of the
world is out there having fun. The power of those voices would be deflected completely by the
simple presence of one slender feminine shielding arm thrown across my chest.
      Someday, that's what love is going to be like. I'm not a violent man, but I'll throw down the
gauntlet to anyone who suggests otherwise. I may be overlooking a few problems that can arise
even in the presence of love (like money-sex-kids-family-friends-honesty-boredom-housework-
religion-politics-bad-habits-work-and-so-much-more) but I still figure the benefits are far in
favor of love. If it weren't so, we couldn't all be that dumb, could we? Don't answer that.
Because I know full well we can all be plenty stupid when we haven't gotten our rocks off in a
few days. Then again, just because we can choose poorly doesn't mean love isn't everything I
think it could be. Certainly in that extended moment with Kim, everything felt right.
      Eventually, Kim sniffed. "Boy, do I need a shower."
      It may have been true, but I didn't mind. She was still wearing the clothes from two days
before. A lot of beer, dirt, sweat, and stress had passed through the skin underneath that cloth.
All of it combined to leave a scent that was strong but pleasant. It was woman: healthy, active,
riddled with hormones and pheremones and hints of other things that broadcast her desirability
directly to my nostrils. I breathed in, savoring one last lungful, and let go of her hand.
      "All right, go for it. I'll clear out. I should go home and clean up, too. Maybe do a little
reading. Meet me for bonus meal at 10:30?" I started to gather my backpack and books.
      "I, um, well, I think I'm going to need a little help. With my shirt, you know. I was hoping
my wrist would be good enough, but it's still pretty sore. And, well, I know I've been a little shy
up till now, but I think I could use you now. It's just that every other time things have gotten too
close they've gone really weird and I didn't want that to happen with you so I didn't know what
to do, but ... but ..." She stopped and waved her good hand weakly, as if it could continue
speaking for her.
      I took her hand again and looked into her eyes. "Look, it's okay. I love you. Nothing's going
to get weird."
     She took a deep, shuddering breath. "Okay. It's just that I didn't think it would before, but it
     "I'm not any of those other guys. I'm Martin. The guy who's been sleeping in your chair for
two days, the guy who types your papers, the guy who made you a toothpick holder."
     She laughed a little at that, and the mood lightened.

      Nude (1974)
      An ink and watercolor sketch of a woman's nude torso.
      "Oh, Martin," she said softly. "You really are an angel, you know that?"
      I grinned. "Nope. I'm a little devil. Now let's get you out of that shirt!"
      "You said you wanted to take a shower."
      "Oh, yeah."
      So I helped cut that wonderful spandex shirt to shreds, inwardly promising myself that I'd
buy a replacement for her. We got plenty playful in the process, and Kim didn't seem to mind.
She encouraged me, actually, prodding and groping further into unexplored territory. When the
last shred of the shirt was gone, though, she stopped as if awaiting some reassurance.
"Beautiful," was all I could say. I stepped toward her, reached out a hand and placed it lightly
against her side, just above her hip. The sudden vivid reality of everything was overwhelming.
Imagination can be great, but there's nothing to compare to pure, physical, practical wonderful
realness, all five senses pouring in reports of beauty in all directions. See the slender curving
novel female torso before you. Listen to the soft hiss of skin as you pass your hand upwards
across her side and cup one beautiful breast. Feel the change in texture as the thumb passes from
normal skin to areola, the slight flex and release as it passes over the half-stiffened nipple. Lean
in close so you can inhale again the radiant scent of a woman after a day's work. Lean closer
still, placing your lips against the flesh above her heart, then withdraw to taste the salt that once
graced her skin and now flavors the moment.
      I said, "It would be downright ungentlemanly of me not to offer the wounded lady
assistance with the rest of her clothes."
      "Now that I think about it, maybe I could use a little help. If you'd be so kind, sir, as to lend
a hand."
      "I've got two--just tell me where to put 'em."
      And she did. Would you believe it took us fifteen minutes to remove the remainder of her
clothing? Somewhere along the line we got mixed up for a while, and all of my clothing ended
up on the floor as well. When the last piece of cloth left our grasp, we looked at each other,
wondering what was going to happen next. It seemed worth a try, so I took her elbow with my
left hand and gestured with my other towards the bed. "If the young lady would kindly follow
me this way, I'll make sure she gets top-notch service."
      Kim didn't move. She smiled but shook her head. "Martin, I really do need a shower." She
sniffed the air. "And so do you, I believe. And maybe a shave, too." She rubbed her hand across
the stubble on my cheeks, nodding in agreement with herself.
      "Well, I'd be happy to join you ..."
      She shook her head again. A stray strand of hair wafted around and stuck to her lip. It was
perfect, so striking I wanted to take a picture. "It'll be awkward enough trying to shower with
only one good hand. If you were there, it might get more complicated."
     My worries began to build again. Were there more objections? Would it be another two
months and a sprained ankle before we began to address the topic of orgasm? I opened my
mouth to object, but Kim put a finger to my lips. She leaned in close, nuzzling my cheek.
"Tonight," she whispered. Then she wrapped her arm around the back of my neck, tangled one
of her legs around mine, and gave me one of the most passionate kisses I've ever experienced.
All my worries went out the window; I believed her.

     The Rose (1958)
     A vibrant red rose hovers in a strikingly blue sky above a dim, brown, rolling plain. The
intense primary colors make the painting striking and particularly attractive as Dalí color
schemes go. A small drop of water rests on one of the flower's lower petals.
     Recipe for one sex machine:
     At great speed, complete the following tasks. Sprint to grocery store. Purchase one red rose.
Sprint home to shower with unprecedented thoroughness. Wash behind the ears? Sure, you hear
about it in books, it must be important, so why not? Scrub with washcloth until shine develops.
Hit the armpits twice. Pop the zits. Pluck errant hairs on shoulders and between the eyebrows.
Shave twice: once with the grain, once against for extra smoothness. Apply generous volumes of
toilet paper to congeal the bloody results left over after shaking hands are through. Comb hair,
apply deodorant, brush teeth. Remove toilet paper from shaving wounds. Apply again to the two
cuts that re-opened. Get dressed. Realize shirt collar now has blood stains. Remove favorite
white t-shirt and replace with a black one that won't show blood. Time elapsed: 45 minutes.
     Sit down and stare at wall for two hours and thirty-five minutes, unable to read, unable to
work, unable to think, except about naked girlfriend.
     Realize in a panic with three minutes to go that if you don't punish the purple-helmeted
German soldier before you leave, girlfriend will make you jism with the first longing look.
     Take care of the problem.
     Sit and stare at walls--unable to read or work or think--for the remaining two minutes and
fifteen seconds.
     Leave dorm. Half a block from girlfriend's house, discover remaining bits of toilet paper
stuck to chin. Use patented saliva-on-thumb method to remove excess dried blood. Approach
house, knock on door. While waiting, place rose stem in mouth. Wince at sudden and less-than-
gentle reminder that roses have thorns. Discover the unique flavor which flower stems gain after
having been immersed in dank water with 200 other flowers for several days.
     Grin and bear it anyway, because after all you know in a few more hours, for the first time
in nearly two years you're going to score. Not only that, but unlike the other times, this is a trend
that might actually continue far into the foreseeable future. And more important than any of that,
and despite what you may have thought the previous times, you know with a thrumming
certainty in your heart that this time around it's really going to mean something.

     But first there was bonus meal, which might have been totally unbearable except that Kim
seemed to be just as nervous and excited as I was. Neither one of us ate more than a few bites of
our food, but the experience was a good way to reaffirm the events from earlier in the evening. It
had been such a sudden shift for both of us that we had to struggle with a sense of disbelief.
Maybe none of it had happened, I kept worrying. It was real, though. All through the meal we
held hands across the table and traded goofy grins.
    Soon enough we found ourselves back in Kim's house. I took a moment to find a glass of
water and returned to find her sitting on the bed, holding the rose.
    I think we both tried for it to be sweet and beautiful. Some of it was touching, some of it
was awkward. Her wounded wrist complicated things, but we made do. That night there was an
undercurrent of desperate joy, each of us suddenly finding ourselves on the opposite side of a
mysterious barrier and wondering how long the blessing might last. We explored this new
aspect of our relationship late into the night, falling asleep shortly before dawn.

      Now I want to pause for a moment with a special message for all the English majors and
literary types out there. I've taken a few literature courses and learned how the analysis process
works, so I'm one of those types myself. If you're like me, I know what you've been doing for the
past 200 or so pages, and it's more than just reading a story. Of course there really is the obvious
story, something on the surface that involves a playful, touching tale of a young man's coming-
of-age in college. But to the literary elite, that's too basic. The pithy, practical summary leaves
no room for metaphor, or personal interpretation and wisdom. I understand the quest to look
deeper, find parallels and hidden meanings and veiled references, to analyze the art behind the
      So maybe you're examining every single sentence, looking for rhythmic similarities
between it and its successors. And likewise you're examining each numeric reference, looking
for connections among them and their significance. (Do your notes include a query about the
inexplicable references to 421? Mine do.) Or you're pondering the intention behind my continual
use of conjunctions at the beginning of sentences. You've tabulated carefully all 177,241
occasions when I've used obviously exaggerated material. You're building a case that this is one
of the works where the narrator is untrustworthy, that you have to read between the lines to get
at the real truth. (Read between these lines: Trust me, you can believe everything.)
      A sharp literary mind is probably cross-referencing this book with hundreds of others,
perhaps coming up with notes such as the following:
      • The repetition of paragraphs in Chapter 1 is derivative of Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist;
      • Ridiculously outrageous reams of regrettable alliteration are ranklingly reminiscent of
         Roth's Great American Novel;
      • Repeated and pitiful attempts at self-deprecating humor fall quite short of the marks set
         by books such as Hubbard's Mission: Earth series or films like Father of the Bride;
      • Wildly unpredictable and sudden breaks from the story (such as this one) can be found
         throughout the works of Tom Robbins;
      • Huge portions of the writing style and plot seem to be a blatant rip-off of Sophie's
         Choice. Plot: Young white male out on his own after college, learning to find his way in
         the world while falling in love with a beautiful young woman who is seeing someone
         else. Story includes a male nemesis who is also sometimes a friend, and large amounts of
         unfulfilled lust with only small amounts of actual sex. Story is written from a point in
         the future, looking back on a troubled past. A sense of unease carries throughout.
         Literary devices: Contains huge tracts of text without dialogue where the man pours out
         the inner workings of his mind; author has a tendency to use sophisticated vocabulary;
         flashbacks and nonchronological storytelling are common. Note: Major Dilemmas could
         in fact stand as a retelling of Sophie's Choice if that award-winning novel were updated
         for the 90s and stripped of all of its vital themes: addiction, insanity, the horrors of Nazi
          Germany, and the heart-wrenching climax of the choice Sophie is forced to make. One
          relatively minor theme--that of describing the culture of a Jewish neighborhood in the
          50s--is paralleled by the description of Oberlin culture in the 90s. In this light the entire
          work should be suspect, as it may be little more than slightly creative plagiarism;
      • Other authors of note who Dale Martin has likely read too much of, and who show up in
          a derivative nature in this work: John Irving, Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, Nabokov,
          Pynchon, Vonnegut, and Faulkner (everyone is derivative of Faulkner). Despite claims
          of antipathy in Chapter 2, H. Royden James seems to be a primary influence;
      • Based on the descriptions of Dalí's paintings at the beginning of each section of the
          chapter, it is obvious that the author knows absolutely nothing about art history;
      • Other topics it is apparent the author knows little about: the "show, don't tell" theory in
          creative writing; the concept of run-on sentences and how they are bad; proper
          punctuation; women, relationships, sex, drugs, music, chronology, suspense, money, the
          workings of a small college, and the workings of the world in general;
      • Topics where the author does seem knowledgeable: Oberlin history, spoonerisms, and
          the various ways and means to place one's head up one's ass.
      How's that compare to your own notes? Startlingly close, I suspect. There's more, I'm sure.
      I bring all this up to address an issue regarding the section subtitles in this chapter. If you've
been following them it's likely you have your own theories as to why they're there, and what
they have to do with each section. No doubt you see a variety of obvious connections, but those
may not be good enough, not subtle enough. Take this section: The Rose. There's a very clear-
cut case that the title refers to the flower I gave Kim. But it would be easy to imagine that it has
to be deeper than that. So maybe you're toying around with the idea that "the rose" represents
Kim. Something about the way she blossoms in this section, perhaps. Or maybe it's about our
relationship, how we've consummated our passion and reached full bloom. The rose might refer
to Kim's red-tinted lips--lipstick being the one form of makeup she used. Makeup at all is rare at
Oberlin; her lipstick is one of the things about Kim that first caught my attention. Speaking of
lips, perhaps the section title hints at those naturally ruddy lower lips that opened so sweetly to
receive me. The drops of dew on the flower in the painting could be representative of the
perspiration beaded on our heaving bodies, or maybe they're indicative of more fertile secretions
where our bodies joined. Have you considered maybe it's a pun? I "rose" (ha ha!) to the
occasion, one might say.
      I realized there was something deeply wrong with me when I found myself contemplating
this list of options and trying to decide which was the "real" reason the section was titled "The
Rose." That just ain't right. I had to yell at myself to stop being so convoluted. Appreciation of
the art behind the story is great, but it's nothing without the story itself. I figured if I was delving
into these intellectual eddies, you might be, too. So I just want to save you some time by stating
clearly here that the real reason this section is entitled "The Rose" is because I gave Kim a
flower. All right? If any other name leaves the rose unchanged, calling it what it is sure as hell
shouldn't make it something else.

     When Kim and I awoke late the next morning, there was an awkward moment where we
looked at each other and wondered if the night before had been too good to be true. Somehow,
in the light of day, it seemed that the past might be undone and all of our old worries could
return. Hesitantly, I spoke first. "Good morning, love."
     She grinned like a coyote. "Morning to you."
     "Everything good?"
     "Mmm. Wonderful." That was enough reassurance for me. Kim seemed to be mulling
something over in her mind. I thought I knew what was bothering her. "Martin?"
     "You want to do it again?"
     "Hell yeah! Thought you'd never ask." I threw back the covers to take a good look at the
woman, running my eyes from head to toe and back. "Mmm. Wonderful."
     "Really." I slid down to the foot of the bed and kissed her big toe. Then I worked my way
up the length of the body, kissing her every few inches. It was only when I reached her chin that
I realized she was misty eyed. "What's wrong?"
     "Nothing. Nothing at all. It's just ... everything's still okay, isn't it?"
     "Absolutely. You're still good, right?"
     She rolled her eyes up, searching for any concerns. After a moment she blinked and smiled.
"Yeah. I am. I'm good." I had a momentary sense of the weight she'd carried, even as it lifted. To
this day I don't entirely know what had gone wrong with her previous intimate encounters, why
she'd been so worried. But in an instant I could see the last of the worry just completely vanish.
She gave a little laugh, then, different from all the other kinds I'd heard from her. It still held a
touch of the strange pained sounds she'd made after falling off the porch, but mostly it was
brighter and lighter than before. I can't even imagine what a sense of relief she must have been
feeling. Hell, I was overwhelmed by everything that had happened in the past few days, and I
hadn't gone through nearly as much as Kim.
     For a while, we just held each other. Eventually my girlfriend settled her hand where it
would get my full attention. "I believe you have a promise to fulfill, mister."
     "Indeed I do. Indeed I do." And for a while we both knew everything really was going to be

      Autumnal Cannibalism (1936)
      A literal image of a couple metaphorically devouring each other. Two soft, malleable
figures lean in close to each other, armed with silverware. As they wrap their arms around each
other, one spoons out a bite from the other's chest while the second uses a knife to slice out a
piece of the first. Their faces, featureless except for ears, flow together, beginning to meld into
      I really can't say much about the subsequent weeks of exploration and discovery. Finding
ourselves in a wonderful and pleasurable new experience, we consumed each other. Twisting
and turning and poking and prodding and tasting and handcuffs. No, there weren't actually
handcuffs. I liked to joke about them occasionally, just to get a reaction from my girlfriend, but
that's it. Those were weeks of sudden and unexpected freedom. We celebrated that freedom
      To an extent, we dropped off the map for a while. The two of us kept together almost
constantly. We'd see friends at some meals and occasionally at a party, but our regular hanging
out with others diminished. Our twice-weekly card playing turned into a once-a-month sort of
deal. For me, life consisted almost entirely of homework and Kim.
     There is one small regret I have from those weeks. Dave and Polly, left mostly on their
own, also ended up spending most of their free time together, just the two of them. Except in
their case Polly's feelings for Dave went unrequited. At the beginning of December, things
started to get sticky. Polly grew more and more frustrated that her amour could be so close and
yet so unattainable. She spent a couple of teary-eyed evenings wondering aloud with Kim why
the world had to be the way it was, while I listened in mute sympathy from across the room.
"Why can't he love me like you two love each other?" We could only look at each other
helplessly and shrug.
     Likewise, Dave confided in me on occasion his deep regrets that he didn't feel for Polly the
way she did for him, and also his frustration that she kept hinting at the issue. He felt like she
was forcing him to continually turn her down, making it awkward for him and more painful for
her. "Why can't she just let it go? Nothing's going to change, and she's only making it worse."
Again, I could only shrug.

     Galarina (1944-5)
     A portrait of Gala, Dalí's wife. The painting shows only the upper half of her body against
a flat brown background. She stands with her arms crossed in front of her, looking straight out
at the viewer. The left half of her shirt is open, exposing one breast. The picture is almost
photographic in its vividness.
     There was a morning in early December when everything seemed the most perfect. It was a
Saturday. We woke slowly, stretching luxuriously and sluggishly, as if the world were made of
marmalade. The night before had been intensely passionate; all we wanted to do now was bask
in each other's warmth. We said little. Every so often a grin would bubble up and find its way to
one of our faces, for no particular reason. After stretching, I settled onto my back, gazing
contentedly up at the ceiling. Kim lay on her side, using my right shoulder as a pillow. She
traced slow, circular patterns that only she could see across my chest with the tip of a finger.
The only sounds in the room were our contented sighs.
     "Hey, look, it's snowing outside!"
     I turned my head to get a view of the world beyond. "So it is." Large, sticky flakes fell
heavily from the sky. An inch or two covered everything. It was the first snowfall of the year,
and it suddenly made the warm bedroom feel all that much more cozy. I settled back into the
pillow, determined to let the morning pass slowly.
     "You know what would be really good right now?" Kim asked.
     "Hot chocolate."
     "You want some?"
     Kim patted my stomach. "Stay right here. I'll be back in a minute." She rolled off the bed
and stood. My eyes wandered lazily over her naked figure as she fished a shirt off of the floor. It
was one of my flannels. Normally loose on me, it was long enough to provide almost decent
cover if any of her housemates were up and about. After Kim left, my gaze returned to the
ceiling. While I waited, I pulled the covers close about me, luxuriating in the pleasant warmth.
Time slipped away again until my girlfriend reappeared in the door frame.
     She placed a steaming mug on the table by the bed, then retreated to her arm chair with the
other cup. I sat up, wrapping a mound of blankets around my shoulders to keep in the heat. Kim
was curled up in the seat, hands wrapped around the mug, holding it in her lap. She sat
sideways, knees folded over the arm of the chair, feet dangling in the air. Apparently she'd only
bothered to fasten the lowest couple of buttons on the shirt, because one side had fallen open,
revealing a breast. Kim sat, unconcerned, studying me. It struck me again how pretty she was.
Familiarity had snuck up on us over the weeks. For the first time in a while I took stock of the
woman I was with. Dark hair cascading to her shoulders, soft brown eyes that practically
radiated warmth, red lips I knew better by touch than by sight. The way she looked had changed
very little since I'd met her, but strangely she no longer appeared anything like I remembered
from that first day. If you'd asked me in September I would have said she most resembled a girl I
knew in high school; now I'd insist the two looked nothing alike.
     I studied Kim studying me, and I was smitten all over again. For a second I felt almost
bashful, making such extended eye contact. An eerie impression formed within me that this was
an all-new woman, and that we should have to begin again with coffee and the Féve and see
where that took us. A touch of the old anxiety trembled in my stomach. How to approach her?
Maybe a wink would let her know I was interested? But of course none of that was necessary. I
knew this woman, she knew me. As quickly as it had left, our history together came back to
mind and assuaged my fears. It was okay. I'd already won that battle. We'd both won, and now
we had each other.
     Kim continued to watch me silently. I didn't have to, but I winked anyway.

     Sleep (1937)
     A disembodied face floats above a flat plain, supported by a dozen of Dalí's characteristic
crutches. Several hold the face off the ground, while others run from chin to lower lip, lip to
cheek, and nose to brow, as if they are all essential to keep the face from utter collapse. The
eyes are closed and the mouth slightly open as the head slumbers heavily.
     With finals came a drowsing complacency in our relationship. We were there for each
other. We could take mutual comfort and support for granted, and when we did it eased us
through the hellish seven days of papers and exams. The semester had been a heavy one for both
of us, even after my dropped class, and its conclusion was no exception. We'd work through the
day and late into the night, collapsing together for a few hours of precious sleep at the end.
Frequently, one of us would be asleep before the other made it back from the bathroom. In a
time of near crisis, it worked. It wasn't even a huge shift. We just knew what made us
comfortable, helped us through the crazy days, and we stuck with it. Things like exploration and
discovery--and, to an extent, romance--were put on hold. It wasn't conscious, but it would have
made sense even if it had been deliberate. Considering the larger picture, that's where the
priorities fell. When finals period beckons, almost nothing can stand in its path.
     Once we got into that groove, that's the way it stayed. There were a couple of days after
winter vacation where we ecstatically celebrated our reunion after what felt like four or five
months. But Winter Term in Oberlin can be a harsh backdrop against which to do anything, let
alone nourish a romance.
     Our schedules were part of the problem. Feeling obligated to Spanish house for allowing
me to stay in their culturally focused dormitory despite my flagging fluency and frequent
absences, I chose to take a Spanish refresher course as my third and final Winter Term project.
The class was designed as an intensive introduction to the language, theoretically giving me a
full semester's education within the span of four weeks. Each morning I had to trudge through
the bitter cold to King, where we would have our first session of the day from 9:30 to 12:30.
Keep in mind by this point in my college career, I was normally trying to avoid classes that
started before 11. What could I have been thinking, signing away a blissful month-long
opportunity to sleep in? I'll never know. Guilt has an amazing power to make us do the stupidest
things, and apparently I'm particularly susceptible. Then it was another march through the
slightly-less-ass-freezing afternoon chill to scrounge up lunch at my dorm room. This usually
took three quarters of an hour or so, leaving me another three quarters to divide between
napping and frantically catching up on vocabulary. Gato means cat. Nariz means nose.
Aceitunas are olives. What have I done?: Que hecho? I just want to sleep: Yo solamente quiero
dormir. How stupid could I have been? Cómo estúpido podido ser? (That last translation came
at the expense of ten minutes of sleep. Was it worth it? Absolutely. Self recrimination brings
unimaginable and unparalleled rewards.) Then the afternoon session began. I was spared further
exposure to the elements due to my living in Spanish house. The class was held in our lounge
from 2 to 4. Strangely, the instant we closed our books the terrible urge to sleep that I'd been
feeling since the moment I awoke would magically dissipate. I'd pack up my things and brave
the cold for a third time to walk to Kim's house. Some days this meant I was practically taking
my life into my own hands. Oberlin was just far enough south that it didn't suffer from the heavy
lake-effect snows, but a northern Ohio winter possesses enough cold and dark that you don't
want to take it lightly. Daytime temperatures generally remain frigid, nighttime wind chills
easily dip deep into negative territory. The only blessing, if you can call it that, is that the
weather gives you ample time to prepare yourself by providing you with several months of cold,
rainy, overcast Unicloud boot camp in the fall. Even my thin Floridian blood had warning
enough to adjust before winter struck in full.
      Kim and I would hang out for a couple of hours and make dinner. Eating at the dining hall
wasn't included in the Winter Term plan. Meals were available, but at additional cost, so most
students fended for themselves during January and ate cheaper, though usually worse. Not only
was it economical, it made for one less reason to have to step outside. Except in my case, since I
had to walk to Kim's to make use of her kitchen, which was roomier and far less crowded than
the Spanish house facilities.
      At a quarter to seven (a.k.a. a quarter till the Simpsons) Kim would bundle up and leave for
her evening astronomy class, which ran from seven till ten every night. Her course was much
less intensive than my own, focusing mostly on observation--when it was clear and not deadly-
cold outside. I'd watch the Simpsons and work on Spanish homework. There was consistently a
couple of hours of the stuff every night.
      Kim would return around 10:30. We'd hang out for another few hours, and then go to bed
so I could get started at 9 the next morning. Seen on paper, that's still more time together than
most working couples get, I suppose. But it didn't seem like much at the time. And of course
there were always interruptions. We resumed our frequent card playing, usually with Polly and
Dave. Or there were occasional nights by the Spanish house fireplace. An open blaze was a rare
thing, and precious.
      The schedule didn't really have much to do with our drowsing relationship, though; it was
us. When Winter Term passed, there was even less time during the hectic days of spring
semester. Multiple classes, ExCo courses, extracurricular activities, a plethora of returning
friends, and the slowly improving weather stole away time like a bandit in the night.
     We--Kim and I--were okay. Nothing to worry about. No reason to get excited. Everything
was fine. We just didn't think about us all that much. It was easy enough just going along.
Certainly it would have been premature to take things too seriously. We were dozing
contentedly, if sometimes fitfully.

     Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate, A Second Before
Waking Up (1944)
     A naked woman sleeps in the lower portion of the picture, floating above a slab of rock.
Beside her floats a pomegranate, with a bee hovering nearby. Beyond the woman is a
gargantuan pomegranate which has been ripped open. From the fruit leaps a giant pink fish. A
tiger leaps from the mouth of the fish, and in turn has another tiger leaping from its mouth.
Claws out, the second tiger menaces the sleeping woman, but even closer to her is a bayonet,
poised to prick her arm like the sting of a bee and wake her from slumber.
     Spring semester marked Ginevra's return from abroad. On the few occasions when I
thought about it, I wasn't quite sure how I would deal with the situation. It was like the Good
Luck, Bad Luck book, where every other analysis was either fine or disastrous. I played my
version of the game with alternating angst and calm. Angst: Tensions had run high between us
before she left, would we still be able to be friends? Calm: We'd been friends for two years, of
course it would be good to see her. Angst: Would all my old feelings come back? Calm: I had a
girlfriend now and everything had changed so there was no need to worry about such things.
Angst: What if Ginevra didn't like Kim? Calm: I didn't have to hang out with them both at the
same time. Angst: What if Kim didn't like Ginevra? Calm: She wasn't going to forbid me from
seeing my friend. Not that I'd ever given her reason, but I didn't think Kim was the jealous type.
Angst: What if so much had changed Ginevra and I didn't even know what to say to each other
anymore? An so on.
     As it turned out, most of my fears were groundless. Our first meeting after her return was a
complete accident; we ran into each other at the Féve a few days before classes started. Kim and
I were having a late Saturday lunch when someone came up behind me and tapped me on the
shoulder. It only took a second for me to recognize the person attached to that tapping hand.
     "Ginevra! Hey, how are you?" I jumped up to give her a hug and looked her over. She
appeared much the same as ever: tall, black hair, blazing blue eyes, big smile, and all.
Something seemed a little strange about her, though. Her hair was a little longer and she seemed
a few pounds heavier, but that wasn't it. Maybe it was just the difference of time, or an eight-
month divergence between memory and reality, but suddenly she didn't seem like quite the same
goddess I remembered parting with the May before. Instead, she was just a friend I hadn't seen
in many months, and despite my occasional worries beforehand, I found myself simply happy to
see her. She seemed equally pleased to see me.
     After the basic rediscovery conversation, I introduced Ginevra to my girlfriend. "It's nice to
meet you," Kim said, somewhere between reserved and friendly. I'd never mentioned my
feelings for Ginevra to her, but Ginevra appeared in more than her fair share of my stories from
earlier years, so I'm sure Kim had a good idea of the situation.
     Ginevra was more enthusiastic. "Hey, it's great to meet you. I'm glad someone finally
caught this guy." She playfully punched me in the shoulder. I think I blushed then, though I'm
not sure why.
     We spent a few minutes in a whirlwind of catching up. I tried to include Kim, but due to the
nature of the subject matter she was left with little to say. Then Ginevra had to run off to a
meeting with her advisor.
     "So that was Ginevra, huh?"
     "Yeah ..."
     Kim gave me a sharp look. Had I perhaps just sighed in a wistful fashion when I said that?
If so, it was more out of my sudden surprising lack of infatuation than from any existing
emotions. I wanted to try to explain, but it seemed like beginning a conversation with, "I used to
be in love with her, you know" would just cause more trouble. So I just changed the subject and
hoped time would clear everything up.

     Design for the Costume for The Woman of the Future
     A tall, slender woman stands dressed in blue and gold. Her dress, primarily golden, is an
elaborate affair including a long train, a second, shorter tier of material at the waist, and an
arching piece that leaves her right shoulder bare but reaches high above and behind it. Accents
of blue are scattered throughout the dress, matching the elbow-length blue gloves she wears. An
incredibly impractical bun of hair extends many feet behind her, reaching farther even than the
train of her dress. This impossible hairstyle is supported at the far end by a servant using a
crutch to hold the hair aloft. Two sets of ribbons and lines extend from the hair to the dress,
providing a source of suspension for it as well. The woman holds an enormous black and yellow
butterfly, which may be a fan or a substitute for a mirror.
     My drag ball costume was taken straight from Dalí. The drag ball is perhaps Oberlin's most
unique, festive, and popular tradition. It's been around for years, but starting perhaps with my
freshman or sophomore year it really took off. It became the place to be. Some years, rumors
even abounded that MTV would be covering the event. I don't think it ever happened, but the
promise was both thrilling and believable. The Oberlin Drag Ball was an Experience.
     The basic principles ought to be clear. Gender roles would be bent: men would dress like
women, women would dress like men. [Footnote: There are some philosophical complexities
that no one ever brought up. Such as the tendency of some men to wear dresses on normal days.
Would they dress in jeans for the ball? Likewise, plenty of Oberlin women wouldn't be caught
dead in a skirt. Would the drag ball be an appropriate place to break character? Finally, is it
more enlightening to spoon the name of the event as the Oberlin brag doll, or as the bag drawl?
Inquiring minds want to know.] To be candid, it would be more accurate to say the men all wore
dresses and the women chose from two viable options: 1) they put on facial hair and wore suits
and tuxes or 2) they would wear as close to nothing as they could get away with. In a way it
makes sense: In modern days women can choose to wear absolutely any type of clothing,
wearing nothing is an appropriate opposite. These days, women in suits are common. About the
only thing men can do that women can't (fashion-wise) is go without a shirt. So topless women
at the drag ball holds well with the spirit, if not with the tradition, so-
     So my costume was taken from one of my favorite Dalí works, "Design for the Costume for
The Woman of the Future." I think I like it because unlike so many of his famous works, the
painting is so bright and colorful. The vibrant blues and golds of the woman's dress are so eye-
catching, healthy even, I just can't look away.
     For practical purposes, I had to alter the costume somewhat. I did what I could with some
coat hangers to get the arching shoulder piece to reach the heights in the painting, but I couldn't
match the artist's imagination. Likewise, the array of forked crutches designed to hold up the
dress and my hair just weren't practical. I did, however, have a fan/staff decorated to look like a
giant butterfly. As soon as we got inside the doors of Wilder, the student union, the fan was an
utter pain in the ass, but ahead of time it had seemed worth it.
     The crowing achievement of the costume, if you'll pardon the pun, was the wig. It took a
four-foot piece of PVC pipe and several balls of yellow yarn to create, but I was quite happy
with the final product: a blond mass of hair longer than Marge Simpson's, though not quite as
thick and directed straight backwards instead of up. The piece was incredibly heavy, so a
supporting crutch was absolutely necessary. Kim kindly agreed to hold up that end of the
costume. Following along with the painting, she decided to play up the role of attendant and
wore a simple costume of grey tights and matching turtleneck. It may not have been drag, but
she was more excited by my costume than anything she'd thought about doing on her own.
     Considering the atmosphere of liberally-interpreted gender roles, I thought it entirely
appropriate that my costume was designed for "the woman of the future." I made sure to tell
everyone I knew that I--a man--was indeed the woman of the future. Most found it amusing,
though maybe not as brilliantly funny as I did.

      The Dance (1956)
      A couple, contorted, distorted, dancing with each other. Their bodies are stretched and
deformed with the activity, rubbery arms, convoluted torsos, and warped limbs. The man has
three hands, one which grasps the woman's neck, one which stretches one of her arms to
impossible lengths, and one which trails to the ground in two twining strips. The woman is
twisted completely around at the torso so that both her buttocks and her breasts face the same
direction. One of her legs curls around in what is almost a complete circle.
      Wilder was packed. Solid people. Writhing masses of androgynous humanity. I had to hold
my butterfly over my head to keep it from being crushed. Music blared, mingled with the
reverberation of voices each trying to shout over the others. Heat radiated, ricocheting from
body to body, trying to escape the building. It carried with it the unmistakable aura of alcohol
and cigarettes, eternal companions of the great Spirit of Parties.
      I took me half an hour just to wander through the building. I kept seeing people I thought I
recognized, only to discover that not only weren't they who I expected, they weren't even the
gender I expected. And then I'd walk past a complete stranger only to have them grab my arm
and shout, "Martin? Is that you? Oh my god!" I'd return the compliment, drop the "woman of the
future" joke, and continue on my way.
      Kim followed behind me, holding the train of my dress and carrying the crutch that we used
to hold the dramatically extended wig aloft. I quickly found out it is exceptionally difficult to
navigate a room with someone else holding your hair. Even turning my head was problematic,
and it was nearly impossible to rotate far enough to direct any comments at Kim. I spent a
majority of time pointing and gesturing to lead us through the crowd. After we'd seen the sights,
I tried to steer us toward a quiet corner so I could put down the butterfly fan for a moment. It
had seemed so light in the beginning, but now I could have sworn the thing was made of lead. I
felt a sudden stab of empathy for the Statue of Liberty. She's been holding that torch for how
many years now?
      A sharp tug on my scalp halted me in my tracks. I backed up half a step and peered over my
left shoulder, straining my peripheral vision. Kim seemed to be looking the opposite direction;
she hadn't seen that I was moving.
      "Kim!" My shout was swallowed whole by the miasma of sound surrounding us.
      "Kim!" Still nothing. I grabbed the wig with my hand and tugged twice, pulling on the stick
attached to the other end. She didn't seem to notice. I backed up another step and reached
backwards with my hand to tap her on the shoulder. While I was backing up, she must have
shifted position. I didn't see it, though, and poked her less than gently in the breast. She whirled
around, pulling the crutch wide and tugging again at my hair. "Ow! What?!" she shouted.
      "Ow!" I yelled at much the same time, trying to get a grip on the wig with my free hand, so
as to prevent future painful pulls. "I'm trying to get over to the corner," I said, pointing with the
      "What?" she said. "... hear you ... save a dolly!"
      "What?" I tried to rotate more, so as to be able to read her lips. Clearly we weren't
communicating properly. I realized that she must have said "Dave and Polly," because they were
standing next to her. "Dave! Polly!" Slowly rotating and shuffling sideways in a circle of
diameter defined by dress, wig, and crutch, I maneuvered to say hi to my friends. This, of
course, spun Kim away from them, out towards one of the busier thoroughfares. My hair jostled
and pulled continually as she dodged around the crowd. This would all be so much easier if we
could find a quiet corner, I thought to myself.
      I exchanged greetings with my friends. They'd seen my costume before, so they weren't
surprised by its elaborateness. "Could one of you tell Kim I'm trying to head over to a corner so I
can put this thing down for a while?" I hefted the thousand-pound butterfly. The idea for the
accessory was great and all, but not only was it heavy, it made it impossible to also hold food
and drink at the same time. Trying to do all that and shake hands was out of the question. In
order to have a free hand, I'd had to go both hungry and thirsty.
      Polly dodged around my side and relayed the message. I pointed a direction. Out of the
corner of my eye, I caught of nod of assent. In jerks and stops our little caravan inched over to a
slightly more secluded sector. With a sigh of relief, I leaned the butterfly against the wall.
      In the movement, we seemed to have lost Dave and Polly. From over my shoulder I heard
Kim shout something. "I'm getting cold!" it sounded like. That didn't make any sense. It was
swelteringly hot inside. I tried to look to my left, but the motion sent my hair bouncing into the
wall. And when I tried right, the wall blocked my view. I began to think I should have taken a
trucking course before attempting to drive my costume in public.
      Slowly, I inched around to the left, holding my hair to guard against unnecessary pulling or
the risk of losing the wig altogether. Kim leaned towards me, bracing the crutch against one
thigh so that it reached backwards far enough to still support my hair. Not for the last time, it
occurred to me that attaching it to the wig wasn't such a good idea. Or maybe the wig itself
should have been designed less to scale and more to reason. But it was too late for worries like
      Kim leaned just a little closer, stretching the hair piece beyond its flexible limits, tugging
my head back. "Ow!" I said. "Be careful, you're pulling too hard!"
     "Sorry. This isn't very easy you know. You keep pushing me into things. This is starting to
get pretty old."
     At least in part I had to agree, but there was a runway contest coming up in half an hour or
so, and I was determined to come out the winner. Trying to explain wasn't going to be easy, as I
could still barely hear Kim over the music and the thousand screaming voices. "Oh. I thought
you said you were getting cold."
     "No, I said 'this is getting old.'"
     "Okay. Hey, could you lift the back of my dress up a little? It's starting to slide down my
     "Lift the back of my dress."
     "Like that?"
     "More to the left. I mean the right. Right!"
     "It's all right?"
     "No, move it right!"
     "I thought you said left."
     "I did. Sorry. I got mixed up because it's behind me."
     "I just said I'm sorry! That's all."
     Another minute of shouting got the dress settled properly on my shoulders.
     "Look, this crutch is getting really heavy. I'm getting tired of carrying it around," Kim said.
     "What do you want me to do?"
     She said something I didn't catch.
     "Can you take it for a while?"
     "I don't think I can hold it that far out behind me."
     "Well, what do you want to do?"
     "Give me a minute."
     "What?" She leaned closer, yanking at my hair again.
     "Ow! Give me a minute!" I snapped.
     "Oh. Don't take too long. My arms are getting shaky." Out of the corner of my eye, I could
see her switch the crutch from being braced against one arm/leg combo to the other.
     This was getting annoying. Maybe we could find Dave or Polly and get them to take over
for a while. I was determined to make it to the runway contest. What to do ...

    The Enigma of Desire (1929)
    A face, similar in appearance to the one in "The Great Masturbator," lies nose to the
ground. Its eyes are closed, and it has no mouth or ears. Behind the head balloons a large
formation full of bubbles. About half of the bubbles are blank. The other half are filled with the
phrase "ma mere," or "my mother." This is one of Dalí's visual interpretations of the works of
Freud, focusing on the theoretical forbidden lust men feel for their mothers. The remaining
empty bubbles suggest there is plenty of room for other taboo loves.
    Before I could think of any solutions, I heard my name.
      Even over the noise, I could recognize the voice anywhere: Ginevra. I turned to the left to
meet her, until a thump and a tug on my scalp reminded me that my hairdo just hit the wall. It
didn't occur to me that I'd just pushed Kim completely into the corner and cut her off from the
rest of the party. That and any other thoughts in my head disappeared the instant I saw Ginevra.
      "Oh my god, look at you!" she said. I said nothing at all, which is exactly what Ginevra
seemed to be wearing. What do you say to something like that? It was hard to tell. She'd gone
the optional route of wearing whatever she felt like, which, in this case, was a whole lot of body
paint and very little of anything else. She was a scene from an astronomer's dreamscape.
Galaxies, comets, and stars floated against an inky black background. The patterns seemed to
writhe and drift as she moved, constellations winking in and out of existence. In that depiction
of outer space, the earth and moon hung and bounced, one atop each of her breasts. Seeing that I
was dumbstruck, she twirled to show off the entirety of the costume. Her back was devoted to a
sunrise. The line of some imaginary horizon was drawn across her lower back. The sun had just
crested that line, its blazing corona flooding around it, spectral beams of light stretching to her
shoulders. It was a work of art, and hot as hell.
      Whatever calm neutrality I'd maintained throughout the course of the semester crumbled in
that instant. Ginevra and I hadn't hung out much during the spring months, but every time I saw
her some portion of the historic warmth had returned. Initially I'd figured it was just a renewing
of our friendship after a long absence, but suddenly everything I'd ever felt about the woman
came back in a rush.
      "Speechless, eh?" she asked, punching me in the shoulder.
      "Wow," I finally managed to utter.
      "I could say the same thing. That's a pretty impressive costume. I know you told me about
it, but seeing it is something else."
      "Thanks. Who did your painting?"
      "Daryl. He's been trying to get me to model some of his body paint work for years." I knew
Daryl. I'd met him through a couple of different circles. He was an art major, a senior, I think. I'd
seen one of his shows and liked his work. Now I really liked his work. Despite the fact that he
was as gay as a hat, I still felt a twinge of envy knowing that he'd just spent several hours
examining Ginevra's body in great detail.
      "Say," I asked, "are you actually wearing anything under all that paint?"
      Ginevra laughed heartily. "You'd like to know, wouldn't you? I'm not allowed to tell. Trade
secret." She winked playfully.
      "That's just not fair!" I insisted.
      "Life is not fair, my friend."
      "That doesn't mean you have to make it worse."
      Ginevra just laughed, refusing to say more about the matter. As we talked about other
things, I tried desperately to figure it out. It shouldn't have mattered one way or another, but it
did. The phrase "of the utmost importance" occurs to me now. But between the dim lighting and
the black paint, it just wasn't clear. To this day, I don't know. It's easy to pretend under that layer
of paint was nothing but Ginevra, and it's just as easy to figure she must have been wearing
something I couldn't see. Late at night, when I can't sleep and I let my past wander through my
thoughts, I argue with myself about this one, among other things. Some day, if I see her again,
perhaps at a reunion in the distant future, I suspect I'll find myself against my better judgement
asking for enlightenment. For my inquisitiveness, I'll probably get myself clobbered by Brent,
too. Serves me right, really.
      Ginevra noticed the butterfly fan leaning against the wall. "Is that part of your costume,
too?" she asked.
      "Yeah, here." I picked it up to show it off to her. I tried to hand it to her, but it slipped and
fell to the floor. When I tried to pick it up, a tug at my scalp stopped me short. Seeing my
distress, Ginevra raised one leg and, in perfect ballet form, pivoted at the waist in a long, slow
reach to retrieve my prop. Naturally, my gaze followed the motion. Or it would have. No sooner
did Ginevra start to lean than a painful jerk to my hair pulled me forcibly backwards and
brought tears to my eyes. Kim--tired, cranky, ignored all evening, and trapped in a corner for
some minutes while I ogled a scantily-clad Ginevra--chose that final straw as the appropriate
time to plant the base of her crutch between the cushions of a nearby couch and rid herself of
several annoyances at once.
      "You're like such a fucking puppydog around her," she snarled into my ear before striding
off into the crowd. Blinking away tears of pain, I didn't know whether to be embarrassed or
ashamed or angry or just shocked at her uncharacteristic language.
      I tried to follow her. "Kim! Wait. Look, I'm--augh!" My motion pulled loose the crutch
from the couch, and ten pounds of stick, wig, and support material yanked me backwards and to
my knees.
      Ginevra, who had missed everything, rose only in time to see me collapse. "Martin! Are
you okay?"
      "Yeah. Ow. Yeah. Fuck. I think I'm all right."
      "What happened to Kim? I saw her run off."
      "Long story. Shit. Ow. Can you help me take this thing off? It's been a total pain in the ass."
      It took us ten minutes to disassemble the major portions of the costume and collect
everything. The runway competition just didn't seem worth the trouble any more. Kim was mad
at me. Ginevra was still dating Brent. My head hurt. The night was a bust. I stumbled outside,
hoping to find my girlfriend, but she was nowhere to be seen. Shit.

     Angel of Alchemy (1974)
     A black body with arcing splashes of gold as highlights, ink-sketched wings, and a skull's
head. It is a grim angel indeed that can convert lead into gold, or perhaps gold into lead?
     If I'd been able to follow Kim immediately I would have apologized on the spot and done
anything to make things up to her. And then I would have considered myself lucky to have
things back together. Her anger had directed itself at my behavior towards Ginevra, but I
realized that much of what had bothered her stemmed from the other events of that night and
had almost nothing to do with my interaction with Ginevra, then or at any other time. Carrying
the stick, being pulled around at my whim, getting left out of conversations, our inability to
communicate, being dragged through traffic and banged into walls. In retrospect, I could see
plenty reason to be angry. Maybe not directly at me, as she voluntarily took up the job, but it
could have made anyone unhappy after a couple of hours. And just when she really needed some
attention, Ginevra came along and I trapped Kim in a corner to talk to that other woman. A
woman that--though I'd tried to deny it, particularly around Kim--I yearned for in the worst way.
     Not so good, but-
     But if I had been able to find Kim outside, or if she'd been at my place when I dropped off
the heap of costume remnants, or if she'd been at her own house when I checked there, I would
have apologized profusely and made it up to her by paying the woman as much attention as she
could bear.
     By the time I left her house, though, my thoughts began to coalesce around a different
concept. Maybe there was something to her accusation about me and Ginevra. Was it really that
obvious, even when I tried not to, that I looked up at her with puppydog eyes? It still didn't mean
anything, because the situation was hopeless. She'd made it through four years away from Brent,
past a number of trials and tribulations, and they were still going strong. She had another year
here, and then they'd be together. Probably I'd never see her again after that. (Chilling pangs of
regret whispered along my spine at that thought, until I told them to go away.) Clearly I had a
good thing with Kim. I was happy, wasn't I?
     Wasn't I?
     Well, sure, things were good. We had something special. Certainly nice. Nice? Definitely
better than being alone. Not just that, there was more to it than that. Wasn't it?
     What were these thoughts running through my head? Why did they all sound so flat and
cheerless today? Just yesterday morning I'd woken to find Kim gazing into my eyes and I'd been
utterly unable to restrain a grin the size of Ohio from spreading across my face. What had
     I halted my hike through the athletic fields to rub my eyes. Behind my eyelids formed again
the image of Ginevra, one leg curled gracefully up and behind her as she scooped the butterfly
from the floor. I snapped my eyes open again, as if jerking away in mid-reach from some guilty
temptation. Surely that didn't mean anything?
     A dangerous question began to form then, deep down in the murky recesses. One of the
worst kinds of questions. A what-if.
     What if, I asked myself, I ever did have some kind of hope? What if Ginevra and Brent
have a falling out? What if through some unfathomable luck I am able to utter the one thing she
has been waiting to hear all her life, some deep combination of truth and beauty that shreds the
fabric of her existence and leaves only the two of us standing together in her heart and mind?
What if-
     What if I was just a nut job? None of this was likely. But if something like that ever
happened, would I leave Kim for Ginevra? The answer surprised me: in a heartbeat. I'd do it
with no hesitation, no guilt, nothing but pure and unbridled joy.
     Wow. What the hell did that mean?

      Swans Reflecting Elephants (1937)
      Swans rest on a still lake. Coupled with the image of trees behind them, their reflection in
the water reveals not swans, but elephants.
      It meant at first that I needed to do some thinking. I did apologize to Kim when I found her
the next day, but it was less thorough and wholehearted than it could have been. With that act, I
let a rift slowly develop between us. I began to contemplate the ways in which she wasn't The
One. Little things that used to seem cute began to annoy me. Things which before I'd found easy
to let slide now bothered me tremendously.
      Basically, I stopped believing that she was wonderful, and at that point it all began to fall
apart from my end. All that magic I'd discovered the previous fall over Halloween weekend just
dissipated without even a puff of smoke. The ability to understand another as well as oneself,
the joy of bringing joy, the conviction that everything would have a happy ending, all of that
fizzled. It was the metamorphosis of Narcissus in reverse.
      At first I tried to hide it and Kim didn't seem to notice anything. Later, she found my
sudden abrasiveness frustrating but didn't really expect what was coming, even on the day I
broke up with her. Maybe my grumpiness made things a little easier when that hit her. Maybe
not, maybe it just made the weeks before less pleasant. Though I feel bad saying it now, at the
time it really wasn't a concern for me one way or the other.
      Somehow, it just seemed to make sense. If I knew I'd leave Kim without hesitation under
certain circumstances, then it didn't seem fair to her for me to be hanging out until then. She
might miss a better opportunity. I might miss a better opportunity. I guess I just took it as a
given that eventually I'd have to let her go, and I might as well get the pain and unhappiness
over with now. So a few weeks after the dance we had the conversation.
      Needless to say, Kim was surprised, and hurt, and didn't really understand. I couldn't have
explained things very well. In fact, looking back on everything now, I'm not sure that I even
really understood what I was doing. Some twisted, lovesick hope that if I made myself available
it'd show the way for Ginevra to do the same thing. Some superstitious gesture, maybe, a stupid
act of self-sacrifice designed to win the favor of the gods. About the most positive I can figure is
to call it a confused young man with too much hope and not enough sense to appreciate what he
has. Or, I should say, what he had.

     May (1949)
     A female physical embodiment of the month of May stands outside under a combination of
rain and sunshine. Tall, slender, and scantily clad, she is covered only by sprouting plants on
her hair and feet and mushrooms around her waist. Cupid floats by her side.
     Springtime in Oberlin can be wonderful. The fecundity and verdance of the growing
season. The warmer weather: pleasant afternoons full of sunshine and comfortable evenings,
fresh and light and new. After months of sweaters and hats and winter coats, the shorts and t-
shirts come back out into the light of day. The grassy bowls (brassy goals) fill with happy,
healthy milling crowds of young, beautiful humanity. Instead of the winter's bitter isolation, we
get to enjoy spring's warm embrace.
     Springtime in Oberlin can also be miserable. The season of love and fertility is not the best
time to be newly single. There are too many happy couples, too many kisses and hands being
held. And now that the nights aren't so unpleasant, the voices under the window carry on much
later than they did even a month before. Late into the night you are reminded of the empty spot
beside you where another bright spirit used to reside. After such a long period of tenderness and
warmth, sex and intimacy, sharing and rapport, the sudden lack of an outlet for any of those
emotions was distressing. Depressing, too. It can be a dark time. If you're not careful, you can
take a look around and come to grim and self-pitying conclusions, like a song I heard once at
open mic night at Oberlin's The Cat in the Cream coffeehouse:

    String-clad bikinis hide just enough flesh
    While I moan and groan at the sight
    Dreams turn to dust but I still have my lust
    And no one to answer my plight ...
    So everyone's happy but me
    So everyone's normal but me
    Everyone's dating, consenting and mating,
    While I sleep with my misery.

     Despite all the rationales that went into the breakup with Kim, and even though I was the
one to end it, I certainly didn't feel any better being single. It's funny how quickly you forget the
drawbacks to single life when you aren't single anymore; it's equally depressing how quickly the
detriments become apparent once you're single again.
     As for the unwitting instigator of all my madness, Ginevra of course stayed happily
committed to her man, and it was self-delusion of the grandest sort if I ever thought it would be
otherwise. It would have been as brilliant to conclude I should sell my car because I really
wished I could discover the power to fly on my own. For some reason, when I did the math to
determine that Ginevra was preferable to Kim, I never stopped to check what things would look
like with neither Kim nor Ginevra.
     As you can guess, May became a very long month.

      The Persistence of Memory (1931)
      This popular painting contains the first appearance of the famous Dalí soft watches. As a
representation of Dalí's face slumbers against the ground, one of the watches bends across the
back of his head. Another is draped from the branch of a tree, and a third seems to be melting
over the edge of a block. The soft watches suggest the strange pace at which time can flow, and
the human obsession with the passage of time.
      In the long run things might have worked out much the same way. Kim and I had never
talked seriously about long-term plans, and I'm not sure that either one of us really expected it.
Though we could have stayed together longer while in school, whatever would come "after
Oberlin" was still a big mystery. We both knew that we had a number of differences when it
came to our plans for the future: lifestyle, career path, family choices, even locations where we
wanted to live. We weren't a perfect match. She never understood that I could have any interest
in drugs other than alcohol, and I know that she felt I was somewhat "damaged goods" even
though I'd given up all of that before we started dating. Spoonerisms were another sticking
point. Unless she'd been drinking, she thought they were a silly waste of time. My best efforts
and greatest finds were continually met with a sigh and a frustrated roll of the eyes. It quickly
got old to have her frequently telling me, in effect, that I was wasting her time. For my part, true
to my kwyjibo nature, I felt that Kim took the Oberlin politically correct, save-the-world vision
just a little too seriously. Our arguments about environmental issues usually ended with her
concluding I was either wilfully difficult or criminally negligent.
      All this is true, yes. And of course this is a complete rationalization, too. Because on
occasion I miss that woman terribly, and in those moments I desperately need a good excuse to
explain why breaking up with her wasn't one of my biggest mistakes.
      We didn't talk much during May of junior year. That was easy enough, really. Exams,
papers, finals, and commencement could keep us all busy. It was tough at meals, though,
because we had so many mutual friends. Dave and Polly probably got the worst of it. For the
first week they had to choose which one of us they wanted to sit with, which was usually Kim,
as I was the villain in the scenario. After that, if the four of us ended up at one table, I mostly
stayed quiet and Kim kept things politely civil, if maybe a little chilly. She carried herself
considerably better than I would have done, I'm sure. If there were any consolations, they were
small ones. Like Polly's finding a new partner to commiserate with when it came to discussing
foiled love.
     During those weeks I had occasional temptations to grovel pathetically and ask Kim to take
me back. Whether she would have, I don't know. Mostly I stayed true to my misguided hopes
about Ginevra. It's only now at the end of things that the full regret is beginning to sink in. Of
course it's easy to romanticize one's memories, over-emphasizing the good times and glossing
over the rougher spots. All the same, I wish sometimes that someone had kicked me in the head
and helped us get back together again, but it's far too late now. Even by the time we both came
back for our senior year, Kim had chosen her path. We hung out on a casual basis a few times,
played some cards with Polly and Dave. On a couple of occasions after having some drinks with
friends I found my way to her place, not really sure what I wanted, just knowing it felt good to
see her. We talked for hours each time, but at the end Kim would always unequivocally send me
home. I couldn't really blame her, and often didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed.
     Then one day in early October she showed up at lunch with her arm wrapped around
another guy. Caleb Something-or-other. Despite my confused jealousy, I knew him somewhat
from a class years before and couldn't help but like the guy. Still it made things a little awkward,
and when Kim's lunchtime appearances became more infrequent I accepted the fact with mixed
sadness and relief.
     They're still dating, I believe. I talked to Kim once during commencement, for the first time
in months. She said after graduation she and Caleb were moving to California to pursue
graduate degrees at Berkeley. I truly hope they'll be happy together.
                      Chapter the Seventh: Ish II and Honors
     On the 21st of April, 1996, I made two disastrous decisions regarding my plans for my last
year at Oberlin College. I knew they were both horrible ideas, but I let my intellect convince my
gut otherwise, to my ultimate regret.
     That's not entirely true: Ultimate suggests that it was only at the end I came to regret my
decisions. But this was a case of ever-present, burgeoning waves of regret that threatened to
overwhelm me at every moment for an entire year. Until the end of May, that is, when the threat
became reality and the vicious undertow made an end of things.
     I made a bad, bad choice; I did a damn fool thing. This is what I did: My days, I decided,
would be spent in pursuit of an honorary degree, and my nights were reserved for the company
of Ixthyaki. Somehow, it all made sense at the time, and that's the most frightening part. When a
man in a single day can talk himself into two things he had foresworn as unthinkable, can there
ever be any real hope for the world?

      What could I have been thinking? Why in the world would I do something like that? Well,
I'll explain, one disaster at a time.

     Initially, I was dead-set against honors. I had a fair idea of the length and intensity of the
work required to complete the project. The whole concept sounded appalling. Short, ten-page
research papers already sickened me. The thought of a fifty-pager, with a lengthy essay exam
and an oral exam on top of that, was ridiculous. Out of the question.
     And then gradually I began to question my initial reaction.
     It really was quite an opportunity. An occasion to work closely with a faculty member on an
in-depth project. I had already assisted Alper with a paper during junior year as a research
project, and while it wasn't always fun, it had been educational. The guy had a sort of
absentminded professor charm about him--alternately deeply brilliant and slightly disoriented--
that made him fun to talk to and made one want to offer assistance whenever possible.
     On the off chance that I did decide to go to grad school, having something like honors
experience and a strong faculty recommendation would be useful. Even if I didn't go to grad
school, the experience might teach me about philosophy and what it was like being an honest-
to-goodness philosopher, whatever that is.
     Sure, it would be a lot of work, but considering the number of credit hours it would eat up,
I could avoid taking several other courses, which could save me a ton of tests, papers, and
problem sets. In theory, learning was still cool, but in practice the regular academic regimen was
wearing on me. Something that allowed me freeform deadlines with few actual classes might
not be so bad. Normally, ten credit hours would amount to three classes' worth of projects--to
trade that in for one paper and two exams over the course of an entire year made a certain
amount of strategic sense.
     The whole experience was bound to be good for me, too. It would be my first chance to
take on something longer-term than next week or next month. I could really dig deeply into a
topic and explore. Honors wouldn't only look good on a grad school application, it would look
nice on a resume as well.
     I wavered for days over the decision, agonizing. Course registration came and went, and I
signed up for other classes. These included Chinese Thought and Religion, reportedly one of the
deepest and most fascinating courses offered at Oberlin. I'd always wanted to take it. It was so
popular that even as a junior I hadn't been able to get a seat in the course. To my annoyance,
Marcus had managed to land the class but then confessed to regularly missing lectures. I
reprimanded him one evening, berating him for wasting a seat I would have loved. My skeptical
inner realist whispered to me that I'd likely be missing those same classes if I were actually
required to be doing the work, but that wasn't enough to belay my tongue lashing.
      I talked with my friends about honors. I discussed options with my family. Some days it
made sense to take on the research, other days it was still utterly horrifying. With such a cloud
of potential outcomes, the final result could have fallen anywhere along the spectrum. It was just
a matter of rolling the dice and taking my chances. It could be good, it could be bad. But it never
occurred to me that I might go through all the misery of the work and walk away with no
recognition whatsoever.
      After all these rationales and arguments, in the end my decision was made up by perhaps
the worst reason of all: guilt. It was just an offhand comment from Evelyn, the Philosophy
department secretary. She was friendly and talkative, and I spent enough time hanging around
the department that we frequently struck up conversations about the local goings-on. She always
had some fascinating tidbit to relay about one of the professors, and my listening helped her vent
a little on rough days. A few days before I had to finalize my decision one way or another, she
asked out of curiosity if I was going to take the academic Pepsi challenge.
      "I've been thinking about it," I said, "but I'm not really sure about it. It's a pretty tough
program, and there's a lot of work."
      "Sure, but I think it sounds a lot worse than it really is. You know, I think Alper's really
hoping you'll keep working with him."
      "Yeah, I've enjoyed working with him so far."
      "I'm pretty sure he's enjoyed working with you, too." And then, out of left field: "If you
don't do honors with him, I think he's going to cry."
      "Huh," was all I said. Cry? Alper? It struck me as a strange image, but I could almost see
those watery brown eyes welling up with tears. Over me? No way!
      But I was left with a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. It hadn't occurred to me that
any of this would mean much to the professor. Just another thing for him to do, in exchange for
maybe one fractional step down the path of his inquiries. What could I really provide that he
couldn't do himself? Other than serve as a protege. Would the man actually be hurt if I passed
up the opportunity? Would he see my refusal as a personal rejection? It hadn't occurred to me
that he might be disappointed if I didn't continue working with him.
      It was as if I stood in the darkness, with two doorways before me. Through one I could
glimpse an open field with the sun shining and children playing merrily. Puppies romped
through the grass and butterflies flitted in the air. Carefree freedom at its best. I could be there:
playing, lounging, and relaxing as I finished my final year at Oberlin. Through the other door I
saw a dank and oppressive cave. A rock pick leaned against the wall, waiting patiently for me to
take up the burdensome toil. Somewhere, under all that rock, was a nugget of something
valuable that I might discover if I worked hard enough. The decision should have been clear.
But in the cave on the left I could see the disheveled form of Mr. Alper toiling alone, clearly in
need of assistance. The door on the right held an image of the professor as well, standing
lonesome on a distant flowered hilltop, sobbing quietly. Tears rolled slowly down his cheeks to
gather in drops at the tip of his stubbled chin before being whisked away by the pleasant breeze.
The children in the field below him continued to frolic, unaware of his sorrow, making the scene
lonelier still.
     Idiot that I am, I chose the door on the left.

      In the beginning, the choice to live with Ish again wasn't quite as obviously misguided. No,
that's not really true. I'd known since October of freshman year that continuing to live with Ish
was not only a bad idea, it was downright unhealthy for me. But I did it again sophomore year
anyway, to my regret. The year away from him in Spanish house had been wonderful. For the
first time at Oberlin I'd been able to relax completely in my own room. I could let it get messy,
practice imperfect poetry, stay up till ungodly hours playing Civilization on my computer and
not worry about disturbing his rest or looking like the irresponsible slacker I was.
      I should have known something was up when Ish joined me at the lunch table in Dascomb
that fateful Sunday in late April. Despite our years of sharing a room, it was rare for us to eat at
the same table. We'd both quickly grafted on to mutually exclusive sets of friends. It was only
maybe once a month that crowded conditions and coincidental timing encouraged one of us to
join the other. Not that I actively avoided him, and Ish certainly wasn't avoiding me; we just
didn't seek each other out, either. That day the room wasn't all that crowded and a few of Ish's
friends were sitting only a few tables away, so it struck me as odd that he'd taken a place at my
      It was a miracle that I'd even made it to lunch at all that day. Later I would curse the
combination of events that managed to place me at Dascomb in time for a meal.
      I'd already given up all my breakfasts long ago in favor of bonus meal in the evenings.
Lunch gradually began to phase out, too. Days when I didn't have morning classes I'd stay up
extra late and get up just in time to make my first afternoon class. Or, sometimes, I'd sleep
through my morning classes. Weekend nights ran even later, easily till six in the morning. There
was something about darkness that kept me energized and something else about the first rays of
dawn that put me out like a streetlamp. I'd collapse into a joyous slumber, intent on finally
making up for all the sleep I'd lost the week before. Figuring that I needed roughly eight hours of
sleep per night, and calculating the average night's sleep was more on the order of six and a half,
by Saturday morning I owed myself a fifteen hour nap. Not an easy thing to squeeze in between
the hours of six and noon, let me assure you.
      But on this particular day, I just couldn't sleep. I'd been out the night before, all over
campus. It started with the annual Tequila party at Zeke. When the Cuervo ran out, I tracked
down Ginevra in her room. I lured her south with an offer of screwdrivers, and entertained her
there with the promise of more screwdrivers to come. Manny stopped by, too, for some tasty
beverages. Our conversation waxed nostalgic, as we talked about Leon and Seth and Thanh, and
getting everyone back together to share a bowl. No matter that I'd given the stuff up, it's the
thought that counts, right? Manny left. Kim came in, and the atmosphere grew noticeably more
tense. It was a couple of weeks after the drag ball--the day before I would break up with Kim, in
fact. She was edgy around me, and she was very unhappy around Ginevra after my reaction at
the drag ball. For my part, I was desperately trying not to fawn too much over Ginevra in Kim's
presence, while also nursing my irritation with Kim over recent events. Kim fixed herself a
drink. I had two. Ginevra, discomfited by my sudden stiffness and Kim's coldness, said
goodnight. This relaxed my girlfriend considerably, and, while my mind dwelled on the finely
sculpted form that had so recently left the room, Kim made love to me. Afterwards, she slept
happily on the bed, but the room started spinning badly for me, so I got some water and waited
in a chair for it to slow. After a painful half hour of near-dozing and fitful attacks of vertigo, the
centripetal motion slowed enough that I could lie down. Sleep came swiftly. The alarm clock, it
seemed, came immediately after.
      "Gotta meet Katie to go over the lab work," Kim mumbled. "See you for the Simpsons?"
      I was asleep again before the rustle of clothes indicated she was getting dressed. Oblivion
blocked out the sounds of items being gathered, keys checked, and creaking door opened. But
for some reason the bang-click of the door closing shot me bolt upright. Pain rushed in to fill the
void where sleep had been.
      I groaned and checked the clock. Eleven? Way too early. Thirst made me stumble across
the hall to the bathroom, where I practiced the water-in/water-out mantra, my small morning
contribution to the circle of life.
      Hung over and painfully short on sleep, it should have been no problem to immediately
retake my proper place in the Land of Nod. But a sporadic doze was the best I could manage.
My brain emphatically refused to stop working overtime, like a gear was stuck somewhere.
Physical discomfort was being interpreted as mental disquiet, until I just wanted to tell myself to
shut up. Strange song lyrics danced through my mind, incomplete. Snippets of conversations
from the week before floated to the surface and drifted away. It felt as if something heavy were
weighing on my soul, and I desperately needed to find a solution. I faced images of Ginevra
from the previous night, from the drag ball. Alper, standing tearfully on the hilltop. The way in
which I'd practically ignored Kim. Alper again, toiling in the mine. He filtered into my
momentary dreams as well as my dizzy half-wakefulness. Why my mind settled on him instead
of Kim is a mystery. It just did. At that point the very act of existing was an exhausting labor. To
force myself into either sleep or wakefulness would take more energy than I had. My mind toyed
with my advisor's name. Kevin Alper. Evan Kalper. Evin Caliper. Mr. Alper. Ister Malper. Ister
Caliper. Evan Malper. Calper Maliper. My brain echoed with manic permutations. Physically, I
felt horrible. Mentally, I felt almost guilty. How could I have treated myself that way the night
before? Had I no shame? No decency or intelligence? The whole world seemed to ache the way
I ached, and it was my fault that everything hurt. And in my head there was Alper, also hurting.
Of course the guilt was mine. Milt was gyne. My guilt. Guy milt. Mine.
      All right! I said to myself. Fine! I'm sorry. I'll make it up to you. I'll take honors.
      And for some reason, I felt better. The answer must have been right (rust have been might).
The wave of mental relief allowed me a modicum of physical respite as well. The
momentousness of the decision charged me up. And the ibuprofen I'd gulped half an hour before
was beginning to take hold. I moved a little and noticed soothing waves of relief where pain had
been not so long before. My stomach wasn't entirely happy, but in general things were better.
      For another half an hour, the ceiling captivated my attention as I contemplated the
weightiness of what I was taking on. It could be good. It'd give me the chance to rack up some
bonus points from my education. And I'd be a liar if I pretended I wasn't aware that Ish had
signed on for honors in Neuroscience. There was always some chance that I could pull off
higher recognition that he would. After all, honors was a very different ballgame.
      It didn't occur to me until much, much later how desperately I was trying to convince
myself I'd made the right decision.
      By noon, I couldn't stand looking at my ceiling tiles any more. Almost all the aches and
pains were gone. Even food didn't sound like a terrible idea, and that's the point at which getting
some food is really the best possible move. There's usually a moment halfway through the first
meal where my body briefly complains, but waiting it out for another twenty minutes invariably
returns me to an almost-human state of being.
      It was during this painful revival stage that Ish sat down with me in Dascomb. My stomach
was working out a couple of kinks and the room had suddenly grown warm. Talking with
Ixthyaki was about the last thing I felt capable of doing, but trying to move sounded like an even
worse proposition.
      "Hey, Ish," I mumbled, letting myself sound as ragged as I felt. Probably I looked pretty
ragged, too: many days unshaven, hair uncombed, unshowered since Friday morning, still
wearing the previous day's clothes. Then again, excepting the hangover the rest of my
appearance was par for Oberlin, so maybe I didn't look that out of sorts. Either way, Ish didn't
take the hint.
      "Good morning, Dale. Have you noticed the honey bee tree is in bloom?" He gestured to his
right, where a lone fenced-off tree could be seen through Dascomb's expansive windows. The
black metal fence surrounding the tree was labeled with a sign that read "Caution: honey bee
tree" in red letters on a white background. Nobody seemed to know if "honey bee tree" was the
proper name or just a prudent description. All the warnings seemed to indicate the tree could be
a source of danger to students, but I don't actually recall anything unusual about the attention
bees paid that particular tree. Plenty of other trees had generous blossoms in springtime,
attracting their share of stinging insects. The tree was one of those mysteries one could wonder
about in idle minutes but nobody ever actually tried to figure out.
      I looked to my left. The tree, indeed, was in full bloom. Had I been feeling better, it might
have even struck me as very nice.
      "So it is," I said.
      Ish buttered his English muffin with infinite grace and precision. Impossibly, his poise
seemed to have improved in the year we had been apart. I watched in infinite silence. "Do you
know where you're living next year?" he asked. A run-of-the-mill question for that time of year.
Nothing to be suspicious about, except that Ish didn't ask run-of-the-mill questions.
      "Not yet. I've been looking for something off campus, but haven't done a very good job
about following up on ads. How about you?"
      He finished chewing a bit of muffin. "Mirriam and I found a house on Morgan street, just
west of Professor street. It's a beautiful location, very spacious. It's in amazing condition for a
rental house, too."
      "Sounds nice." Morgan street was a good location--far enough out to be completely off-
campus, but close enough to be convenient.
      "Very. Actually, Mirriam and I are still looking for roommates. Another couple was going
to live with us--you know Sunil and David, right?--but they recently separated, so we have an
opening. Would you be interested in living with us?"
      No. Hell no. Not on your life. For my sanity, no!
      But I couldn't say that, of course. I couldn't tell him how difficult I found his mere presence,
wouldn't dare admit I wasn't up to it. No, I'd have to rationalize my way out of it.
      If only my breakfast wasn't playing jumprope with my stomach, and if only my head hadn't
started hurting again, I might be able to think of something reasonable to say.
      "What's the rent?"
      "Two hundred and fifty dollars a month. That includes all utilities. There's a washer and
dryer in the basement; they are also included without charge."
      That was a steal! But don't be interested, I told myself. Show only skepticism.
      "What's the layout of the place?"
      "It's a medium-sized house. There are four bedrooms, three upstairs and one downstairs. All
of them are large. Mirriam and I are actually taking the smallest two of the four rooms because
they have a connecting closet. There are two bathrooms, one upstairs, one downstairs. The
downstairs also has a large kitchen and living room. There's ample storage space in the
      It sounded almost too good to be true. How could I argue my way out of that? Then I
remembered ...
      "It sounds really nice, but Seth and I are looking for a place together. If you've only got one
opening, I can't leave Seth in the lurch. It wouldn't be fair, you know."
      "Of course. But we actually have two openings, so this could work out perfectly. After they
broke up, Sunil and David both found new places to live without telling each other. You and
Seth would both be welcome."
      I had been foiled. What could I do? I was trapped, it seemed.
      "Sure ... I'll take a look at the place."
      "I'm going over to the house right after lunch to take some measurements. Would you care
to come along?"
      "Yeah, okay. I can't make any final decisions without Seth, you know." I could always
check it out and then quickly find someplace else. Tell Ish that Seth found another place, and
that would be the end of it.
      "Naturally. It's as good a home as you can find in Oberlin. You'll both be impressed, I don't
      Ish finished the rest of his meal with infinite grace and precision. I'd given up on mine.
Normally food was the quickest path to recovery, but this morning the physical complaints were
lingering more than usual. My head hurt and my stomach was still borderline queasy. I could
plead ill, but then I'd have to cope with Ixthyaki's friendly concern. I'd feel guilty about his
misguided sympathy (I deserved my suffering completely, after all) or I'd have to admit to
drinking too much. And then I'd still have to make arrangements to squeeze in a viewing of the
house some other time. I just wanted to get it over with.
      I lurched sluggishly along beside my perennial roommate's steady, measured pace. It was
only a few blocks, but Morgan street had never seemed so distant.
      The place was beautiful. The outside was modest, clean, well cared for. As we approached,
I could see a weed-free gravel driveway that led down the side of the house to a carport in back.
The neatly mowed back yard contained enough space for a volleyball court. Towards the back
towered an enormous oak tree with a tire swing. Ish informed me that not only did the house
have a large screened-in back porch (well-stocked with wicker furniture), there was also a brick
grill in back, perfect for barbecuing. The house had a decent-sized front porch, covered but
unscreened, which was ringed by well-maintained shrubs. A pair of comfortable-looking
rocking chairs sat peacefully soaking up the southern sun.
      We stood out front and talked for a few minutes until the landlord arrived. He introduced
himself as George Landry. Tall, round-faced and mustached, he reminded me a little of my
grandfather. I liked him immediately. George eyed my disheveled appearance with what surely
was a questioning look. All the same, his handshake and smile were friendly, and I returned
both with warmth.
      As he let us into the house, he explained to me that he'd lived there himself for forty years.
"Raised my kids here. Went through three dogs, four cars, and a whole passel of rabbits we kept
in a hutch out back. But the wife passed on a couple of years ago, and I just didn't need all that
space. So I got myself a smaller place and rent this one to pay the mortgage on t'other, and have
a little extry besides."
      That explained why the grounds had been so well cared for, I realized. I approached the
doorway with increased respect. A friendly grandmotherly spirit might still be wafting through
its halls.
      It may have just been coincidence, but I began to feel better the moment I entered the front
door. My stomach finally settled down and the rest of my hangover aches were reduced to minor
whimpering complaints. By comparison to my state just minutes before, the absence of
discomfort left me feeling giddily euphoric. I could have danced, almost.
      George gave me a quick tour of the house, while Ish took his measurements. With each
room, my appreciation grew. High ceilings made every room large and airy. The kitchen had
unbelievable amounts of counter space. Cabinets stretched to the sky. The living room was large
and contained--unbelievable!--a working fireplace. Hailing from Florida, fireplaces were still a
novelty to me, something I thought of in relation to Santa Claus legends. Yeah, I know, I'm
Jewish, but unless you live in a cave there's no escaping Christmas and the holiday traditions.
Spanish house had a fireplace in the lounge, and every time they lit it I was powerfully drawn to
its cheerful warmth. The opportunity to have one of my very own would be wonderful.
      One of my own? What was I thinking? I wasn't going to live here. No way. Not with Ish.
Inconceivable. Still, I could imagine what it might be like in such a nice home. It was
immaculate compared to most student housing, where it was more common to find ragged
carpets, broken furniture, smoke-stained ceilings, cracks running through the walls, and all those
other blemishes associated with cheap housing and poor maintenance.
      The tour continued. There was one downstairs bedroom which had been converted from a
dining room. If I were to stay here, I hypothesized, I'd probably want that room, so as to have
some distance from Ish. Of course, I'd be right next to the common room, so maybe that
wouldn't be the best location. I kept later hours that Ish, but if Seth moved in too, he usually
stayed up even later than I. He was also more prone to having raucous gatherings. The
downstairs room might be better suited to him. As long as I had my own door to shut, I'd be fine
upstairs. Not that any of this mattered, because I'd volunteer to write a fifty-page research paper
before I'd live with Ish. Of course, I realized, I had just decided to do such a paper as part of
honors. No matter. I wouldn't be living at 44 West Morgan, no matter how nice the property.
      The upstairs, of course, was amazing as well. The slant of the roof cut into the east and
west walls just a touch, but the ceilings were still generously high. Ish's and Mirriam's rooms
were nice; the walk-through closet lent the set a hint of intrigue. Clandestine liaisons and
whispered secrets could transpire amongst the shrouds of hanging clothes. The bathroom was
surprisingly large and had been redone within the last ten years. All of the fixtures were modern,
and shelving was plentiful. The last room we hit was the bedroom that would eventually be my
own. It was huge--the master bedroom. Enormous double windows graced the eastern wall,
allowing for plenty of morning light. I could see all the way down Morgan Street to Main Street;
sunrises would be readily visible, too.
      Furnishings came with the entire house. The master bedroom contained a night table, a
large and sturdy chest of drawers, and a queen sized bed. It looked very solid and very
comfortable. After spending the past year squeezing with Kim into one of Oberlin's long twin
beds, this was the epitome of roominess. My god! Was that a box spring? Oh, the luxury! Fit for
a king, it was. The room was nearly twice the size of my current dorm room. To have all that
space, plus a kitchen, plus a living room ... it was almost unimaginable.
      Was it possible I could live here? I'd have my own room, after all. A safe, solid hardwood
door to hide behind whenever necessary. Surely sharing a little public space wouldn't be nearly
as bad as sleeping in the same small room had been. Would it? We both had active lives, and
with each of us doing honors, how often would we even see each other? If Seth went along with
the plan, he'd be there to back me up whenever things got difficult. Against my better
judgement, I could feel myself wavering.
      In the end, it was the painting that clinched it. After talking details with George and Ish in
the hall for a few minutes, I poked my head back into the bedroom for one last look. That's
when a painting on the west wall caught my attention. Something about it struck me as familiar.
It was a pen and ink drawing, with watercolor paint for shading. Mostly muted tans and yellows,
greys and purples. Two angels danced in the foreground, framed by three dark green trees which
stuck out for their darkness amidst the general lightness. Under one of the trees sat a red-capped
jester, playing the trumpet. Behind the angels and the trees, a long sweeping arch led back to a
city, a misty lavender sea of rooftops broken only by the cross-topped dome of a cathedral.
Between the angels' feet, a sign declared the scene to be "Roma." The signature on the painting
said Landry, but I was sure I knew it from the museum in Tampa. It wasn't quite what I
remembered, but it was too close for coincidence.
      "That's a Dalí, isn't it? The painting of Rome? I think I've seen it before. That's a wonderful
      George smiled, clearly pleased.
      "It was one of them strange artists, maybe this Dolly guy you're talking about. The wife
allus did like to paint, but I never could keep all those famous fellas straight. I do like this scene,
though. Margie copied it from a postcard we got when we were in Italy for our honeymoon. It
was about all we could afford after payin' for the trip. She always did like angels, and she said
the picture reminded her of the honeymoon, too. It's been on that wall since the day we moved
into the house. I would have took it with me, but it just didn't seem right takin' it out of the room
after all this time."
      "It's a great painting," I said.
      "Yes it is, idn't it?" Yes, he really said "idn't." It was part of his accent. Not uneducated so
much as just relaxed. As much as he poo-pooed knowledge of refined things like art, George
was a smart man.
      I was hooked. I could already picture myself lying in that bed, gazing off into a Renaissance
Roman landscape, at peace with the world. And I did, too. Not as often as I would have liked,
but now and again on lazy weekend afternoons before I rose from bed, or occasional evenings
when life weighed heavily on my mind, the painting would take me away.
      The basement with washer, dryer, and storage space galore was only a formality. The
laundry chute that ran from the hall on the second floor to a hamper in the basement was
frosting on the cake. And the low rent was the cherry on top.
      "This place is amazing!" I remarked to Ish as George locked up behind us. "It already feels
like home. I'll let Seth know I've found a place. He'll want to come out and look at it, but I'm
sure he'll love it, too."
      George, who had drawn near, eyed me again, weighing judgement. "I'm a mite purticular
about who stays in this house," he said. My stomach quivered. Maybe I should have showered or
shaved this morning. I probably still smelled of alcohol. "But you talk like a good kid. As long's
you promise to take good care of the place, you can stay."
      The man sounded serious. I extended my hand. "You have my word."
      "Good enough fer me." He extended his own hand and shook warmly.
      As I suspected, Seth was more than happy with the place. The enormous bedroom appealed
to him, along with having the downstairs bathroom mostly to himself. He could sleep through
anything and didn't mind the proximity to public spaces. As far as passing the George Landry
test, I warned Seth ahead of time so he was on his friendliest behavior when he met our
landlord. If he put his mind to it, Seth could charm the socks off a hand-puppet.
      And so it was I came to live with Ish three out of four years at Oberlin. What an idiot I was.

     Things started out well enough the next fall. The first week was filled with moving,
decorating, and tracking down old friends. My room quickly began to feel like home. I kept
busy, I stayed out quite a bit. Then classes began, and that was another distraction. Reading
ahead on my homework because it was still fresh and exciting, and I knew I'd need the extra
time later. Figuring out my schedule, which had to be rearranged to accommodate honors. The
class I'd so envied, Chinese Thought and Religion, had to be scrapped; I sighed at the missed
opportunity, but duty beckoned. Kicking off honors with Alper ate up more time, as did greeting
more friends who showed up at the last minute.
     As I settled into my routine, my proximity to Ish slowly began to chafe, as I should have
known it would. His extraordinary neatness was a huge factor. He always washed every dish he
ever used immediately after he had finished with it. The man had no compunctions about
cleaning my dishes, too, so that I always felt guiltily behind in my kitchen duties. And it was
guilt that I could never make up to him.
     I lobbed a couple of practice vocab words towards my roommate. Naturally he smacked
them out of the park. Then, during the middle of the second week of classes, a chessboard
appeared in the living room. One piece had been moved. A lined sheet of paper beside the board
read in neatly printed letters: "P-K4." Pawn to King 4. The game was on.
     For the next couple of weeks, Seth mediated the experience. He was less formal, more
cluttered. Someone to talk to about regular things without feeling on the spot. Someone I could
complain to, someone who might vent his own issues in return (or even have issues--you
wouldn't think that would be refreshing, but it is). But then Seth disappeared. No X-files case
was this, unless the mystery is trying to explain love. That is to say, for all intents and purposes
Seth moved in with his girlfriend Sara. He still kept most of his things at our house, still showed
up for fresh clothes and occasional laundry access. But after the third week of classes he spent
no more than a handful of nights in his bedroom throughout the entire year. That left ten more
weeks of classes, plus a week for fall break, a week for exams, five weeks of winter term,
thirteen weeks of spring semester, a week of spring break, a week for finals and another week
and a half before graduation, nearly all of which would be spent alone with Ixthyaki and
Mirriam. That's 231 mornings, days, evenings, and nights. My sanity shield was gone. My
pressure valve had been sealed. It was two heavyweights against one lightweight, and I was in
for the most thorough drubbing of my life. When, in mid-October, it became apparent that Seth
was never going to be a major presence in the household, it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
      It wasn't all terrible, of course. The house was nice, comforting. Ish and I both spent plenty
of time away, as did Mirriam, who was also pursuing honors, hers in Math. After Seth, Mirriam
was in the house the least. She was the queen of extracurricular activities. On top of doing
honors, she played on the lacrosse team; sang in In-A-Chord, a classic Oberlin acapella group;
and served as an editor for the Oberlin Review. Her schedule should have broken her even if
she'd had an identical twin to stand in for her half the time, but somehow she managed it.
Needless to say, she was out of the house most of the time. Most days she'd leave at 8 in the
morning and come back around midnight, though on Thursday nights she was often out at the
newspaper until much later. During her eight hours in the house, she managed to squeeze in
time with Ish, time for sleep, time for daily hygiene, and occasionally a little casual hanging out.
It makes me ache with exhaustion just thinking about it. Ish was home more often, studying in
his room or relaxing downstairs.
      When I was home, I could retreat into the quietude of my own room and remain mostly
undisturbed if I needed it. I took to sitting out on the porches, too--thinking, reading, or just
letting time go by. The south-facing front porch was excellent for watching passerby or catching
some sun, while the screened-in back porch provided shade on hot days and shelter from
mosquitoes. At night, a symphony of crickets wavered against the ear as if the dimness of the
back yard had been transformed into rolling ocean swells. Sometimes Ish would join me out
there. Occasionally he'd show up with a beer in hand, asking what was new. Mostly he just sat
there in silence along with me. The porches were a zone of truce. All competition was
suspended while we sat in the dark, not looking at each other and rarely talking. Every now and
then one of us would offer up a description of some rare moment from the day. A professor's
wise words, a friend's entertaining story, some glimpse of precious beauty, or just a comment on
the darkening evening around us: sunsets and flitting bats and night sounds and stars. One of us
would speak in soft tones, and the other would nod or chuckle or sigh in agreement. We had a
similar appreciation for the world, Ish and I. At least in our quiet moments. But turn the lights
on and go inside, and I'd be hunting for a kill faster than you can say "How do you spell
antidisestablishmentarianism?" It's just the way it was.
      This made for a wonderful escape during the first few months, but as the air grew chilly it
became harder to sit outside for long. Even in the depth of winter I would occasionally bundle
up to stand in the cold for a moment's peace, but it took something close to desperation to stay
out for more than a short while.
      Life at 44 West Morgan wasn't a complete reproduction of our earlier years. The experience
was mellower, our conflicts less frequent. My frustration was not as intense, but it ran deeper
and longer than before as our struggle matured. On its own, the situation could have been
bearable. It's just that home living was the high point compared to the rest of my life. The
Ginevra situation was as hopeless as ever. Kim had moved on. I remained single throughout the
year. Academia was growing quickly wearisome; it was all I could do just to get through my
classes in order to hit the minimum credit hour requirement for graduation. Honors was
demanding more of me than any work ever had before, eating into hours and hours that could
have been spent with more entertaining classes, or having fun with friends, or just sleeping.
Even when I did have free time, most of my friends were going through their own version of
Oberlin overload and had little time to spare. We were a serious bunch, that's for sure. Like the
entire world rested on our shoulders, one might think. Most Obies would have scoffed at the
stereotypical, beer-guzzling, havoc-wreaking fraternity experience, but I'm not so sure that a
touch of it wouldn't have done us some good. When you're trying to take care of the world at age
21, there are a lot of shoulds and have-tos and responsibilities. The College certainly never
discouraged us, either. If the administration had ever leaned over and conspiratorially whispered
to us, "Put down those books. What you need tonight is to get royally shit-faced," my jaw would
have hit the floor.
      And maybe that's mostly good. All the same, one honest-to-goodness Oberlin-sponsored
festival per semester could have made a world of difference. Something like one of those
Medieval-type royal festivals where everything stopped for a day and the entire population
gathered in one spot for joyous celebration. Just imagine ... one Friday there are no classes, no
homework, it's a truly free day. Artists and entertainers of all types are encouraged. Jugglers,
painters, the entire Conservatory of Music on display, but casually having fun. People wearing
strange costumes, cavorting in the sunlit bowls. Games and contests and catered food. Student-
run one acts. Free rides from the campus Daihatsu brigades. Add in some drum circles, get the
religions involved with singing or meditation or chanting. Bonfires and dancing. Maybe a
Simon and Garfunkel singalong. Even an activists section where interested students could go to
sign all the circulating petitions at once, maybe take in a lecture or two on the newest attempts
to improve the planet.
      It's like Purim, the Jewish holiday devoted to forgetting for one evening all of one's
troubles. The point is just to let it all go, and really, truly feel free to celebrate. Singing,
drinking, and interactive storytelling are all part of the day. For twenty-four hours, everything
evil is supposed to be forgotten; no holocaust, no nuclear weapons, no famine, no ozone layer,
no deadlines, no classwork.
      It could be amazing. With a festival like that, there really could be three thousand shiny,
happy people holding hands out there. Just imagine the joy, the sudden burst of freedom, the
brief but poignant relief from daily pressures, the outpouring of spirit that such a celebration
could engender. Almost all of those things I've described occur individually at some time or
another during the course of a year, just unorganized and unanticipated. Why not schedule them
all at the same time? It would be chaotic, yes, but so worthwhile. An organized, intentional
release of cares.
      Yes, what Oberlin needs more than anything else is a festival. If it were in my power to
bestow one wish upon the place, that's what I'd choose. Take the last Friday in April, maybe.
When it's late enough to be warm and pleasant but not so late that it interferes with finals. Sort
of a "Spring finally made it to northern Ohio" celebration.
      Were I president of Oberlin, creating a spring festival would be my first act. Oberlin needs
it. Moreover, it deserves it.

    By October of my senior year, things were quickly going downhill. For one thing, I found
myself unable to really get into honors. The topic was based loosely on a subject my advisor had
been contemplating for years. It was a small branch of one of his pet theories. He probably
thought my work was an interesting footnote to explore. Since I was just doing honors for the
good it might do me, I wasn't particularly attached to any specific area of study. At first, I was
content to accept Alper's suggested topic. But after a while the subject began to wear on me.
First of all, the project meant I was required to read paper after paper written by Alper and his
cohorts to get a proper sense of the background in which I was working. That meant hundreds of
pages of dry, unadulterated philosophy. No undergraduate course was this, with classroom
discussion and pointers from the professor to keep us on the right track. It was just me and
Alper, sitting alone in a room, and the entire hour of our weekly meeting was devoted to
whether or not I got it. There was nobody else to fill in any gaps, nobody to take the heat off.
Alper was there to answer questions, but to do that I had to read the materials, and doing that
just wasn't very easy. Or convenient. Seven months seemed like so much time in which I could
get around to any of the work. My sensibilities as a Zen master of homework whispered
conspiratorially to me that the recommended schedule was ridiculously conservative. Alper just
didn't understand how I worked. I'd written ten-page papers in one night on occasion; a forty
pager could probably be turned out in a couple of weeks, maybe a month of leisurely writing.
That left five months to read and a month to take notes and pull together an outline and note
cards for reference. Put in those terms, it sounded ridiculously easy. Unimaginably generous. So
if an exam came up, or a big problem set, well, I could put aside my reading for a day or two.
Need to go out of town for a weekend? No problem. As long as I read for a couple of hours
before each of our weekly meetings, I could come up with enough questions to keep us busy,
and it wouldn't be totally apparent that I wasn't keeping to Alper's recommended schedule.
     It kept running through my head that college was supposed to be "the best years of my life,"
at least according to cliche. And senior year, being the best year of college, in theory embodied
the span of 365 days that constituted the ultimate experience of my many years, past and future.
This whole theory was taken with a grain of salt. Sure, things were good, but if this was "the
best" then life was going to be a grave disappointment. Either way, working some fun into the
schedule was requisite. If I couldn't go out to a party now and again, or enjoy a game of darts in
the 'Sco on occasion, or just talk irresponsibly late into the night with my comrades, then I might
as well not be in Oberlin at all. I still believe this. My mistake was assuming that honors could
and should accommodate a pleasant social life, when in fact a truly agreeable senior year was
mutually exclusive with the honors regimen. That's not to say honors itself was flawed--my
complaints strictly concern the idiotic assumption that I personally might be suited for the task. I
just wasn't cut out for it. In retrospect, it's a surprise to me that everyone else thought I was a
good candidate. Particularly myself. Skeptical to begin with, after a few months of the
experience I lost all interest in the topic. A few months after that, I was firmly convinced I'd
never want to experience anything like it ever again. And as for anything it might offer me, well
I was pretty sure I didn't want anything to do with any of those paths either.
     Hell was beginning.

     At home, Ish and I became more competitive. Chess, checkers, backgammon, go, pente,
Scrabble, gin, rummy, gin rummy, bowling, jarts, volleyball, badminton. Hell, even bingo.
(Don't ask.) Poetry recitations. Literary quotes. Philosophical interpretations. Vocabulary words.
Spiritual inquiries. Foot races. Arm wrestling. Frisbee throwing. Chili cook-offs. Juggling.
Standing immobile. Holding our breath. Breathing out the longest. Holding the longest note, the
highest note, the lowest note. Making a wine glass sing by rubbing the top with our fingers.
Painting the living room. Comparing our tax returns. You name it. If I could talk Ish into doing
it, it was a contest.
       Not surprisingly, Ish vs. Martin Part III was as pathetically lopsided as Parts I and II.
Perhaps even more so.
       Take contact juggling: the art of maneuvering a ball across one's arms and hands such that
the sphere seems to take on a life of its own. It dances, it glides smoothly across the skin, always
in contact, always in control. The only time I've ever gotten a good look is in the movie
Labyrinth, when David Bowie as the Goblin King sends a glass orb skittering around his arms.
It's fascinating, and if done properly gives the complete illusion of a self-guided ball that
wanders your body like an ant on a gumdrop.
       I tried to teach myself the basics, just because it looked so cool. There's an art to throwing
the ball up in the air and moving your hand around it so that it looks as if the ball is doing the
moving. Leastaways, that was the best I could figure it. After meals in the dining hall I'd snag an
orange as my one piece of allowed take-away fruit. On the way back home I'd contact juggle the
orange from palm to the back of my hand and then back again. That is to say I gave it my best
shot. Frequently it meant missing the orange, trying to catch it, and instead smacking it hard
enough to crush it into the ground at juice-making velocities.
       It was a terrible waste of food; probably only one in three oranges ever made it to the safety
of my home still intact. I felt properly guilty, of course, for the waste. For the starving children
everywhere, and whatnot. It was just that I couldn't resist the temptation to fidget with any
sphere that found its way into my hands.
       At home, I had a set of low-bounce synthetic juggling balls which met my needs admirably.
During long paper writing sessions, they'd serve as an entertaining stretcher when I needed a
break. When I'd made enough noise to prompt one of my roommates to ask if I was all right, I'd
know it was time to get back to business.
       Ixthyaki, of course, was naturally curious about what I was trying to do. I showed him a few
basic moves that I'd managed to intuit. Ish gave the balls a few tentative tosses and then sent the
ball slamming into a wall at Mach 5.
       "I'm sorry, Dale. It slipped away from me." He seemed quite sheepish.
       "Don't worry about it. It takes a while to get the hang of it. Usually trying to correct a
mistake causes more problems than just letting the ball drop. If you just let it go, you can pick it
up again and start over. If you launch the ball across the room, you lose your rhythm, your
balance, and you've got to go fetch the ball."
       "I see. Much like regular juggling."
       He hefted the ball a few more times, then flipped it from his palm across the back of his
fingers. He tried to let it roll down his arm, but it fell to the side. Most people would have
grabbed for the ball and sent it into the next county, but Ish just froze. The sphere dropped,
bounced lightly, and settled against his shoe. Clearly, he had the concept down. It was uncanny,
because you have to fight a lifetime's worth of reflexes in order to decide not to catch something
you've just dropped. Even though I know better, I can't do it more than half the time. It's like
intentionally not catching your balance when you start to tip, but-
       But despite his understanding, his continued efforts didn't gain him much in the way of
results, even after half an hour in the back yard. If it had been anyone else, I would have just
reassured them that it took hours to get even the basic moves working. But with Ish, the lack of
immediate expertise was almost shocking. Could this be one arena where I had the edge? Sure, I
wasn't anywhere near street entertainer caliber. Still, my skills were head-and-shoulders above
my roommate.
      Ish eventually returned the ball to me, having gained little ground for his efforts. He left for
the library soon after, and I gloated quietly over my small victory. I had something I could teach
Ish. Unbelievable! Un-fucking-believable. After his departure, I practiced for an hour myself, to
work out the kinks and try to give myself one more small boost beyond my roommate's abilities.
Every little bit would count.
      Excitement thrilled through me. Was this his weakness? Had I found his kryptonite? The
guy could be a man of steel for all I was concerned, just give me this one area of expertise. Let
me have one minuscule advantage, and in all other areas his overwhelming dominance would be
fine. I practiced all week, at least an hour a day. Whenever no one else was home, I'd send the
balls flying about my bedroom in an attempt to divine more of the secret mysteries of the art.
Skill was slowly gained, but at the end of the week I was noticeably improved. Maybe hard
work and determination could get you places after all.
      The next weekend, I casually got out my contact juggling gear and putzed around in the
living room while Ish was stretched out on the couch, reading A Clockwork Orange. I rolled the
ball around my hand a couple of times, passed it back and forth between my hands, danced it
across my fingertips. Ish looked up from his reading.
      "Hey, Dale, that's pretty good."
      "Thanks." I threw in a couple more tricks while I had his attention.
      "Impressive. How did you do that?"
      Playing the part of the wise and patient teacher, I gladly shared one of my trade secrets with
Ish. Bonus points for Martin!
      Ish accepted the sphere from my hands with infinite grace and precision. "Like this?" He
made a stiff but reasonably good approximation.
      "Yeah, that's about right. It just takes a little practice."
      "Hmm. I see. I'll have to work on that." If it had been a sunny day, I could have blinded
somebody with the ferocity of my smile. But then clouds began to gather overhead. Ish said,
"I've got the part down where the ball rolls from palm to the back of the hand and returns to the
palm." Ish demonstrated with a fluid twirl of the wrist. "And I can roll it down my forearm and
back." The ball plummeted from his wrist to his elbow. At the last second, it reversed course
and I swear it travelled uphill all the way back to his waiting palm. "And then of course there's
the trick where ..."
      Shock turned to horror as my roommate demonstrated half a dozen expert maneuvers. The
little orange sphere orbited his body as if pulled by gravity, jumping and spinning with acrobatic
skill I'd never seen outside a circus. I felt sick.
      "That's great, Ish," I muttered, collapsing into an arm chair. The man continued to
demonstrate. His words fell on uncomprehending ears: "Blah, blah, blah, and like, whatever.
Blah blah blah." The meaning of his instructions escaped me completely. Life just wasn't very
much fun any more. I gazed through Ish and out the window as he practiced for another minute,
then returned the ball to me. "Thanks for the pointer, Dale."
      Listlessly I managed a "Sure thing" before retreating to my room to sulk.
      In November, honors took a turn for the worse. By that point I was clearly behind schedule
and losing ground quickly. Alper did his best to keep me on track, providing me with reading
lists, updated schedules with necessary due dates, and all the answers to all the questions I could
ask. It's just that I'm a procrastinator by nature. The Zen timing works for me, and I always blow
off intermediary due dates. Brilliance for me is 95 percent adrenaline, and that doesn't kick in till
the final deadline looms, at which point I pull off the impossible. Before then, I spend my time
inactive but "thinking about it really hard," the classic college catchphrase that translates to "I
haven't done shit." But for me it really seems to work. I do work fast. That's how I've managed
to scribe three quarters of this book in just over a week. By that standard, writing forty pages
shouldn't have taken me more than a few days, tops.
      Alper, of course, wasn't having any of it. Perhaps he had some inkling about my lack of
comprehension regarding the subject. Maybe he knew better than I what good philosophy
requires. I just figured he was being "professorial" and "organized." Considering the disorder of
his office, his general absent-minded professorhood, and his wildly erratic lecture style, I should
have realized that his work with me wouldn't be a superhuman exception to that rule. But I
assumed anyway that he was just being anal about the whole project.
      It's obvious now that Alper must have clearly seen my work was lacking. With repeated
efforts he finally impressed upon me the need to get it in gear if I was going to have a successful
project. And then, just when I'd gotten revved up enough to do some serious catch-up, my
primary source went missing. Four hundred pages of critical philosophy from an obscure and
out-of-print translated tome by a guy named Elbert that constituted the ground-breaking and
most thorough venture into my topic, and it disappeared completely. Vanished. Poof! Invisible,
intangible, a trick to make Penn and Teller drool with envy. I'd just finished all of the other
historical background reading. Alper had only the week before bestowed his only copy on me.
I'd read a few pages, gathered a number of questions. Then one disastrous Tuesday morning I
met with my advisor to discuss those questions. That afternoon, the book was gone.
      Over the course of the following week, I dumped out my book bag at least five times. I tore
apart my room, sifted through my office in Mudd with a fine-toothed comb. No book. I checked
the Philosophy department office. Stopped in at every lost and found I could locate. Checked
back in at Alper's office, but he didn't have it. Retraced my steps of that fateful day over and
over again. Desperation prompted me to clean my house from basement to attic. I even checked
my roommates' rooms, to make sure they hadn't accidentally scooped up the book by mistake.
Nothing. No sign of the thing. It was enough to make one believe in goblins and gremlins. My
shifty eyes scanned every dark corner for mischievous critters. I dreamt about finding the book
on numerous occasions. No less than a dozen times my heart leaped into my mouth at the sight
of another book on my library shelf that had a similar binding.
      Weeks passed. I remained convinced that eventually the book would surface. Even when all
hope was lost, I just kept searching, because what else could I do? There wasn't another copy of
the book publicly available anywhere within the state of Ohio. There should have been one in
Columbus, but it had been checked out in 1983 and had not been seen since. The Co-Op book
store couldn't locate a copy for us. A couple of Alper's colleagues owned the book, but they
were reluctant to part with it. I received a few poorly photocopied packets which represented the
key sections of the work, but the bulk of the philosophy remained a mystery to me. Alper tried
to provide alternative reading, but it was like trying to learn human physiology with a
department store mannequin.
     So far I've been vague about the actual topic of my paper. The main reason is, I don't want
to talk about it. You wouldn't care or understand, anyway. I'm sick of trying to explain it to a
bunch of slack-jawed, dead-eyed friends. Even the other philosophy majors gave me strange
looks and a drawn-out "Oooookaaaay," when I tried to explain the point of my thesis. Basically,
it was Alper's baby. His, and a few dozen colleagues around the world. Practical implications?
There weren't many. Earth shattering insights? Not really. Dry, boring, and totally
incomprehensible to the layman. Just forget about it. I'm doing my best to let all those
arguments and catchphrases that haunted me for eight months return to their eternal rest. I've
even destroyed every physical copy of the paper. There were four: one for me, one for the library
archives, one for my advisor, and one to be read by the honors examiner, a professor from
another college. Soon after I was denied honors, Alper returned all four copies to me with a less-
than-sympathetic, "We won't be needing these." So I took them home and burned them in the
brick fireplace out back. What else could I do? After devoting so much time and effort to
something only they were interested in, if they didn't want to keep the things I certainly didn't
need them. Let the purifying spirit of fire take them away. Remove the taint. Erase the evidence.
When the fire cooled, I scooped the ashes into a plastic garbage bag. I will confess that I gave
the bag a good stomping, purely out of spite. For what it's worth, I restrained myself enough not
to piss on the remains, although I was sorely tempted. Instead the ashes were taken to Plum
Creek and now most likely the remains are feeding clams in Lake Erie. That's a fitting enough
end for me.
     I took the file off my computer, too--that trusty Macintosh that had seen so many hours of
paper writing, game playing, and general procrastination. Impulse nearly led me to delete the file
completely, but at the last second I pulled it back out of the trash and put a copy onto a floppy
disk. I just couldn't wilfully make something of that magnitude extinct. Bitter as I am--and as
bad as the paper was--it's still a part of my work here at Oberlin. I can't destroy it intentionally,
can't bring down the hammer myself. If that disk eventually ends up missing or damaged,
though, I doubt I'll shed any tears. I'm not trying to lose it, though. In fact, I've taken special
precautions by making sure I keep track of the files. I stored it away three weeks ago, right after
finals. The disk has the position of honor, placed gently and lovingly on the deep maroon
material of my car's sun-drenched dashboard. I'll check on it every month or so to see if it's still
okay. It'll be a fucking miracle if it lasts the summer.
     Sometime in February, long after I'd given up the search, the keystone book of my research
finally surfaced. Turns out Alper had filed it away in a box with papers for another project. My
best guess is I'd left it on top of his papers during our fateful Tuesday meeting, and Professor
Alper had continued to sort papers onto the stack afterwards without noticing my unwitting
addition. When I came back days later, he'd already forgotten about the box in the corner and
thus didn't find the book. Certainly it was unintentional, but the loss set me back dramatically.
Alper reminded me frequently that I needed to increase my pace, but he did nothing to take into
account his own oversight. For the long-lost book he offered no apology, handing it to me one
afternoon with only a muttered, "I don't know what it was doing there, but I found this in a stack
of papers from my Henry James class. It's pretty dense, so I'd start reading it soon."
     That was it. No apologies. No acceptance of culpability. No suggestion that I revise the
scope of my work. I suppose I couldn't revise it much and still have a project worth discussing,
but my advisor didn't even hint there might be a softening of any standards due to his oversight.
It was just my problem. And I suppose it really had been all along, anyway. Even I knew that
plenty could have been done without the book, key though it was. It just galled me that my
advisor wasn't even sympathetic enough to commiserate with me that finding the book earlier
might have been nice. Maybe he felt defensive about it; I don't know. But I was now playing
three months of catch-up research when I should have been well into the theory-formation stage.
     Just another brick in the wall.

     As I started writing my thesis, I also began to keep a more formal log of my observations on
lethalpy. Often it was just a note or two. Sometimes I used it to get myself warmed up for real
writing. Spinning off a couple of pages of lethalpy ranting got the fingers moving and placed me
in the right frame of mind. Other times it served as a reward for good work. Just get through
another two pages and you can spend an hour working on lethalpy, I'd tell myself. Plenty of
people enact a version of this reward system. Whereas the typical populace might reward
exercise with ice cream, bills with television, or lawn work with a movie, in exchange for doing
real philosophy I allowed myself the right to contemplate my own doom.
     Morbid, maybe. But it was plenty entertaining. Isn't it amazing how nearly everything can
be fascinating when it involves avoiding work that ought to be done? When you procrastinate,
bad TV becomes good, absolute idiots become charming conversationalists, the nutritional
content of your yogurt becomes Shakespeare. Jokes are funnier. Sunsets are more picturesque.
Music is sweeter. The swirling pattern of cream in your coffee takes on a ravishing significance
that it never had the last eight thousand times you had a cup of joe, but now you can't bear the
thought of obliterating the pattern with one thoughtless motion of a spoon.
     It was almost inevitable that even a conversation with Ixthyaki would eventually seem more
appealing than working on my thesis. By the time my lethalpy research had given me a 20-page
paper and a notebook full of comments, it seemed appropriate to broach the subject with Ish, so-
     So when the opportunity presented itself, I took it by the horns. One rainy Wednesday
evening in late March, I found my roommate poring over a magazine in the living room.
Something scientific, perhaps Surgeon's Digest.
     "Hey, Ish."
     He put the magazine down. "Hello, Dale."
     "Watcha reading about?"
     "Antibacterial products, particularly antibacterial soap. According to this article, using them
on a daily basis isn't a good idea, because in the long run it will eliminate the regular bacteria
and leave behind super bacteria that are resistant to the substance. Eventually the bacteria will
regrow, and the entire batch will be completely immune to the antibacterial ingredient. It's a
form of evolution in action, you see."
     "But don't we need antibacterial products to kill off the germs? If we don't kill them, they
could make us sick, right?"
     "Actually, no. Soap doesn't really kill bacteria. It just removes them from our skin and
washes them away. So it's perfectly safe. Of course, there are times when it's important to make
sure that all bacteria are dead, and then it's good to use the potent chemicals. But every time we
use them there's a risk that we'll breed more super bacteria. That's why the chemicals should be
used sparingly."
     I realized this revelation would become the linchpin argument for lethalpy. It was perfect!
Thank you, Ish, I thought. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
     "Huh. So what the article is really saying is that by trying to make things safer for
ourselves, we're actually making the world more dangerous by creating bacteria we don't know
how to kill."
     "Eventually, yes."
     "That's strange, because I've been noticing a lot of things that seem to work the same way.
The harder we try to create a safer world, the more likely we are to end up with a less hospitable
     "How so?"
     "Take guns, for example. They were put into the first amendment as a means of protection
for the populace. Universally, they're used for protection, from the standard police-issue pistol to
the shopkeeper's ubiquitous shotgun, to the revolver in a residential night stand. But of course
guns are an enormously popular means for robbing, hurting, or killing people. That's one
example. New drugs cure one disease but cause another. Pesticides help provide crops to feed
the growing populace, but in the process destroy wildlife and cause diseases in the very same
populace the crops are feeding. Electricity is fundamental to running modern society. Take it
away, and we won't last long. Rioting, looting, starvation: They're only a week away, tops. But
electricity is also a killer. Power lines are deadly. Radiation from high-voltage lines gives
schoolchildren cancer. You get my point?"
     "I think so, yes. That which benefits us can also be dangerous."
     "Yep. Just think, nearly every science fiction movie ever filmed has made it clear that each
wondrous new source of power could fall into the wrong hands and become a terrible weapon of
mass destruction. Hell, just look at nuclear power plants. The same technology can become a
nuclear bomb. Even a power plant can be deadly--consider Chernobyl, for example. That's why
nobody wants a nuclear plant in their neighborhood. Of course, as you know, coal isn't any
better, what with the enormous amounts of pollution those plants put out, giving us global
warming and the like. And that's on top of the mining they have to do to get the coal in the first
place. Strip mining completely destroys the environment, or if they send men down the shaft
those men will come up with black lung if they're lucky and won't come up at all if they're not.
     "Yes, I see. What are you getting at?"
     "I've got a theory. You're familiar with the laws of thermodynamics, I assume?"
     "Of course."
     "Do you know the English paraphrases that describe these laws? One: You can't win. Two:
You can't break even. Three: You can't even get out of the game."
     "I've heard that before, yes," Ish said.
     "Well, I've got a theory that the same rules apply to more than just energy. They're
fundamental part of the world and our relation to it. The second thermodynamic law is entropy,
I'm sure you know. I call my own theory lethalpy, as a sort of take on the entropy view of the
world. When you look at how potentially lethal an environment is, any change to that
environment improves one aspect to the greater detriment of the whole. No matter how you try
to make things safer, you can't win. You can't even break even. That's where I get lethalpy, from
lethal entropy."
     My roommate pondered for a minute everything I'd said. Finally, he asked, "So what do you
make of all this?"
      I'd been waiting for the opportunity. I ranted. I raved. The futility of putting all this effort
into things that could only make the world more dangerous and more complicated. The
hypocrisy of getting up in arms every time the new "miracle cure" caused some new problems.
The stupidity of expecting new developments not to have a down side, and the idiocy of our
collective shocked outrage when those down sides become apparent. We should just know
better, get used to the idea.
      Ish said nothing while I vented the entirety of my thoughts on the subject. Afterward, he sat
in silence for a moment. There, I thought. That'll give him something to brood on for a while.
Put him in a funk. Let him stew in the doom and gloom for a while. Then he opened his mouth,
and everything collapsed around me.
      "That's all well and good," he said, "but what else are we going to do? What's your theory
good for?"
      "I ... well ... um ... I don't really know," I stammered weakly. What else could we do? He
had me dead to rights: A theory that states a problem but proposes no solutions is useless.
Understanding lethalpy wouldn't change anything. Couldn't make anything better. (Of course it
couldn't, wasn't that my point? Cold comfort for the pointless philosopher.) My theory had no
power to affect the world, unless it was to label a few hypocrites or brace oneself for the worst.
It was cute, but pointless. It had taken me a hundred hours to build the whole thing up, but it
took only one question from Ish to tear it down. So much for lethalpy.

      Meanwhile the trials and tribulations of my honors work began to build to a head. I
wouldn't have made it at all without the comraderie and encouragement of Dave and another
philosophy major, Brandi, both of whom were going through the honors ordeal with me.
Brothers by fire, we checked in on each other weekly or even daily. Brandi had only made
cameo appearances in my life before the year began, but as one of only two other people in the
universe who knew exactly what I was experiencing, it became impossible for us not to be
drawn together. We three frequently shared meals, had adjacent rooms in the library to work
from, and most importantly, we jointly possessed a simultaneous deadline for the end of the
      One of the things that kept me going was the appearance that Dave and Brandi (brave and
dandy!) were having as rough a time as I was. They seemed equally frustrated by setbacks of
their own, equally worried about the upcoming written and oral exams, equally stressed out.
They were overwhelmed by work, short on sleep, occasionally inspired, occasionally bored, and
frequently vocally concerned about how their progress was going. I remained firmly convinced
that I had to be doing worse than they were, but every time I broached the topic they jumped in
with tales of their own.
      About a week before the written exam, Brandi and I shared a late-evening commiseration
fest. "Hey, Martin, what's up?"
      "Oh, hi, Brandi. Not much. Just studying."
      "For The Exam?" It was clear which one she meant.
      "Nah, I've got a history exam tomorrow. First things first, you know. I've put in some time
already, but I'll finish up after this test is over."
      "You're way ahead of me, then. I haven't even started studying, I've been so busy on the
thesis. I'm gonna spend all weekend trying to learn everything I should have learned in the last
four years. How do you cram four thousand years of philosophy into two days?"
     "I don't even want to think about it. At least you've been putting time into the paper, instead
of spending time working on a history class."
     "Yeah, but I've still got gobs of work to do. We've only got four weeks left, but I could use
another eight or ten. I don't know how I'm ever going to get everything done in time. Mr. Payne
keeps asking how I'm doing and looking worried every time I give him a progress report."
     "Mr. Payne always looks worried. It's the way he purses his lips and wrinkles his forehead
when he's thinking."
     "Yeah, but I think he's extra-worried now. He's started saying 'hmm' to himself in long,
drawn-out tones."
     "You should see Alper," I said. "He's started wearing all black. I think he's breaking in the
clothes for my funeral."
     We joked some more, trying to outdo each other with the most worried advisor. By the time
she left, I felt better. Maybe I was right on track after all. I won't say it didn't occur to me to quit,
because it frequently did. I just thought it was part of the stress. Besides, if I dropped honors I'd
be ten credit hours short for graduation. The only thing more painful than having to look into
Mr. Alper's eyes as I disappointed him by giving up on my research was the thought of having to
spend another semester stuck at Oberlin. It was a miserable thought. My parents couldn't afford
it. All my friends would be gone. I sure as hell didn't want to take any more classes. And I
couldn't even imagine going though hundreds of painful conversations as I explained to my
mom and dad, brother and sister, grandparents, and other relatives, and all my friends that no, I
wasn't graduating yet, and yes, I'd have to stick around Oberlin for another year. Why? Because
honors was tougher than I expected and I didn't like it and so I dropped it. Talk about being a
disappointment. And then I'd have to spend a semester wandering around campus without Leon,
Thanh, Manny, Seth, Ginevra, Dave, Polly, Brandi, or any of the other friends who were on the
same four-year trip with me, feeling out of place and lonely because I didn't want to write a
paper and take a couple of tests. All semester people would run into me and say, "Hey, I thought
you'd graduated," and I'd have to reply, "Yeah, well, I was supposed to, but I couldn't hack
honors, so now instead of getting special recognition for my work I've been held back a
semester." That interpretation may be gloomier than necessary, but I was in a gloomy frame of
mind. The options were clear. I could face all of that embarrassment and disappointment, or I
could keep working on my project with Alper. It really wasn't much of a choice; I kept working
because I felt I had to.
     The written exam came three weeks before the thesis was due. It was painfully tough, but
not as disastrous as I'd feared. Answer ten out of fifteen short essay questions in three hours. I
nearly panicked the first time I skimmed through the test because I only knew the answers to
one or two of the questions. But I tackled the ones I knew and then gradually read and reread the
other questions until more answers came to mind. In the end I completed the required ten, eight
of which I felt moderately comfortable with. Three or four I was sure I'd nailed. It wasn't a great
showing, but I thought it would have been a passing grade, if it had come with one. [Footnote:
The level of honors would be assessed by the outside examiner, based on a combination of
written exam, oral exam, and paper. Actual grades were never discussed, I guess we assumed it
got marked as an A or something. Instead you could be ranked with honors, with high honors, or
with highest honors: cum laude, summa cum laude, or magna cum laude, respectively. Or, in my
case, you could also fail entirely and graduate with nothing, or, as translated into the Latin, cum
      Still, by the time I finished the exam I was sweaty and shaking and badly needed a nap. We
all felt beat up. Brandi and Dave seemed more worried than I did about the exam, so I wasn't
sure what to think. Several days later our relative suspicions were confirmed when the exams
were handed back. I'd scored in the mid sixties and my friends had each gotten something
around fifty. Dave's advisor, Mr. Stern, assured us it had been an unusually difficult test, and
graded on the curve we all stood reasonable chances of doing well. Maybe I'd be okay after all, I
thought. But the written test was the portion I was least worried about. I expected my small
"lead" to even out over the other two events of our academic triathlon. The oral exam in
particular worried me. I'd never had one before and had no idea what to expect. I just knew I
have a tendency to need pencil and paper to work through advanced problems. Tight deadlines
in a quiet room help me work, but being under pressure with people staring at me tends to make
my mind go blank.
      There was a week between the written exam and the oral exam. I tried to study a little more,
but I'd already crammed in before the written exam as much as my brain was willing to hold.
After the oral exam we had only two weeks to finish the paper, so focusing on it took
precedence. Thinking about the verbal test would only make me nervous, anyways, and-
      And I probably couldn't have been more nervous when I finally stood in front of the room
and waited for the first question. The entire philosophy department seemed to be there: Mr.
Alper, Mr. Stern, Mr. Payne. Even Mr. Hertz from my first introductory philosophy class, who
was theoretically on sabbatical for the semester. Whatever you do, I thought to myself, don't
declare that you're not the same person from one minute to the next or Mr. Hertz will flunk you
on the spot. The faculty was supposed to be there in part for moral support, but I could only
think of them as a jury.
      The judge, otherwise known as Professor of Philosophy William Krick, a faculty member
of a nearby university, started off with a seemingly easy question. "Tell me, Martin, why did you
work with Doctor Alper on this topic?"
      "Well, I-" My voice squeaked weakly. I cleared my throat and tried again. "I'd worked with
Mr. Alper last year as a research assistant on another paper, and I found the work interesting. So
when they offered me a chance to do honors I thought it would be a good experience to continue
working with him." There, that was better. Apparently I could talk in front of all those
professors after all. One question answered easily.
      Mr. Krick didn't seem satisfied. "No, I mean why did you research this?"
      I was confused. Hadn't I just told the man? What else did he want? "I, um ... I enjoyed
working with Mr. Alper and wanted to see what else he could teach me. You know, delve
deeply into a topic and see what working on something for more than a few weeks was like."
      He just stared at me blankly. I scrambled for anything else I could throw in to the mix. "Mr.
Alper's my advisor here, too. So there was a level of convenience in continuing to work with
him. On something in-depth. You know."
      That didn't seem to do it, either. The jury was shifting uneasily. Krick tried again. "I'm
trying to ask what the point is behind studying something like this."
      "Oh! I get it. When you said 'why did you study this' you meant, 'why might one study it,'
right? Well, uh, there are a number of philosophical ramifications to consider ..."
      It went downhill from there. He pried me on a couple of topics related to the background
readings I'd used in my paper. I stumbled through somewhat fuzzily, but I mixed up names
badly in the process. As with most issues, there were two major camps divided over a couple of
fundamental points, based on ground-breaking essays by men named Elbert and Edwards. My
work was an attempt at refuting some of Edwards' points in favor of Elbert. I could have told
anyone this in my sleep. But on that afternoon I couldn't keep the men straight. I knew I was in
trouble when I heard myself saying, "... so you see, that's why we have to side with Edbert on
this issue, rather than taking Elward's stance."
      I could feel myself turning bright red. The temptation to wipe the sweat from my nose was
unbearable, but I was deathly afraid if I dared to move my arms from my side great torrents
would rush from my armpits and wash everyone away. On second thought, maybe that wasn't
such a bad idea.
      "One last question on a different topic," Krick said.
      Oh, good. It was almost over. I've never experienced a longer hour in my life. Maybe if I
could land one solid answer and leave on an upbeat tone I might be able to salvage something.
      "Fire away," I said, trying to sound like I was ready.
      "Please describe for me Descartes' proof for God's existence."
      Piece of cake. I'd covered it a couple of times, once in the introductory class with Mr. Hertz
and again in a Philosophy and Religion course my junior year. After some of the ancient Greeks,
Descartes was as fundamental to philosophy as you could get.
      "Well, for starters, it's not a very good proof. Or rather, it's not a proof at all. He tries, but
there are at least half a dozen errors he makes along the way. Some of them are right at the
beginning, so he doesn't prove much of anything."
      "That's fine. Just tell me how he tries to prove God's existence."
      "He starts by trying to prove his own existence, which for a while he doubts with
considerable vigor. He proposes that everything we think we know about the world may be an
illusion, including the world itself and him with it. But eventually he concludes that he at least
must exist. It's normally misquoted as 'I think, therefore I am,' but that's not really very accurate.
It's more like, if there's something there for the illusion to be projected onto, then what is that
thing receiving the projection? That thing, he decides is him. Oh! But there's a problem there
I've never noticed before. Other than being a receptor for illusion, how does he know anything
else about himself? I mean, the illusion could be providing him with a past, or even a new
identity from one moment to--"
      Holy fuck! What was I doing? That's exactly what Mr. Hertz told us not to think! I stiffened
in a panic and stared at the professor, waiting for lightning to strike.
      Someone coughed.
      "Yes?" Krick prompted, shaking me loose.
      "Um, you know, that's beside the point, which is that he knows he exists. As an
approximation, let's just go with 'I think, therefore I am,' for the minute. Once he knows he
exists, I think he gets the world back, too."
      "How does he get the world back?"
      "Ah, well, you know, I'm not entirely sure. But I guess he'd have to or it wouldn't be very
satisfying, just him and God and nothing else. It's not like Descartes to leave something like the
world in ambiguous existence. The whole thing started because he so desperately wanted to
know what was real." Gee, that sounded familiar. Isn't that why I picked philosophy in the first
place? I bet Descartes was never grilled by a bunch of bloodthirsty academicians for wanting to
prove reality was real.
     "But again I don't think that's really the point. The point has something to do with, uh ..." I
couldn't remember. I should have been able to, but the knowledge just wasn't there. I could
remember Mr. Hertz summarizing the list freshman year. He'd handed out a sheet with bullet
points. In my mind's eye, I could picture the sheet, and the bullet points. I could count them:
there were eight. But I couldn't read any of them except for the first. Nothing else would come
through. "It's, ah ... you know, why don't I start over?"
     I tried it again with a running start, but I still hit the same wall. Nothing. I tried writing
bullet points down on the board, emphasizing in the process that I knew there were eight of
them, as if that mattered. Still nothing. After a few minutes of confusion, the faculty started to
take pity on me, prompting me with suggestions.
     Someone said, "It hinges on God."
     "A quality," someone else suggested.
     "A quality? I thought qualities were Hume." (I verified later that Hume does indeed discuss
qualities, but naturally he's not the only one.)
     Another professor said, "Only God can be ... ?"
     "Good? Great? God is merciful? No, uh ..." I was guessing wildly, and we all knew it.
     "Only God is innn-"
     "Invisible! No, wait, that's not it. Uh, infinite! Right. Of course." From there I didn't have
much trouble. In fact, I even managed to approximate the eight bullet points fairly well. But
there was no changing the fact it had been ugly as all get-out.

     I suspect now that my theory of lethalpy touched some nerve deep within Ish. The
powerfully driven are rarely willing to accept any amount of futility. And lethalpy represented
the essence of futility. Everyone needs meaning. They need a point, a reason to exist. Maybe
they don't think much about it. Plenty of people give me blank looks when I ask them what they
think the meaning of life is. Even some Obies, the most compulsively introspective bunch of
people on the planet. If they refuse to be curious even then (and I mean just to acknowledge it as
a valid question, not to come up with a definitive answer), I just quietly mark them down in my
mental list of "People I'll Never Be Friends With" and ask them empty questions about their
major or the weather until the conversation is over. Socrates--somebody far wiser and more
famous than I--said it a long time ago: "The unexamined life is not worth living." My corollary
to that philosophy is the sentiment that not only is such a life not worth living, there's not much
point in talking to the person living that life, either.
     Don't get me wrong, I'm no meaning-of-life snob. Lots of people, they may not have deeply
elaborated theories, but they've got something to go on and I'll respect it whatever it is. Be good.
Honor god. Raise kids. Make money. Love. Share. Heal. Teach. Learn. Relax. Explore. Success.
Fame. Drink. Gamble. Play football. Pass the time. Try to figure it out. Just survive. Whatever.
There's all kinds of reasons. I'm not going to pass any judgements, nor make any real
recommendations. Some people wonder but remain agnostic. These days I think that describes
me pretty well. As long as you've bothered to ask at some point, that's cool. But if you've been
obsessed with mechanically doing things for 20 or 40 or 60 years and you've never once asked
why, well, that's about the epitome of a wasted life.
     Me, I used to think it was love. Romantic, fraternal, spiritual, love of the planet and the
universe, love of where you are and what you're doing, both in the moment and long-term.
That's what brought me to Oberlin: the hope that learning how to change the world would allow
me to express my love for it and receive its love in return. But love for knowing answers took
me down a dark and dishonored path in philosophy. Love of Ginevra has filled my heart with
pain. Love of planet brought me to Oberlin, where I've become cynically convinced that most
lovers of the environment are wasting their time. With results like that, it seems that there might
be something more fulfilling out there. What that is though, I'm not sure yet; for now I'll claim
      People like Ish, they're practically guaranteed to have some well-developed and definite
answer to the ultimate question. It's the only way I can imagine that someone would push
themselves so hard, be so productive, stretch so far. You've gotta have a darn good reason to do
that. Something fundamental to your being that shouts, "Go! Go! Go!"
      Maybe that's just the way I see it. Without at least a little reason, I don't get out of the bed in
the morning. It takes big reasons to put up with papers and problem sets and four years of
classes. To work like Ish, it'd take me a reason so big I can't even imagine it. Certainly not
happiness. You get happiness enough at a dollar per bottle of beer or $20 for a month of cable
television. Saving someone's life, maybe, would make it worthwhile. But honestly, even at that
cost, I don't think I could keep it up for an extended period of time. I couldn't do what Ish does
and feel fulfilled; I'd feel like I was missing the best stuff. Whatever drives Ish--and I know it's a
lifelong obsession--I just don't have it in me.
      And whatever that deep-seated passion is, it doesn't take well to suggestions of futility. My
roommate made it very clear very quickly that he did not approve of lethalpy. For the first and
only time in my life, Ixthyaki Ramanaharayanan was angry with me. With his quick analysis,
he'd stopped me cold. Though maybe he was unaware, he'd already thoroughly crushed my
spirit. But now he proceeded to deliver the intellectual equivalent of beating me to a bloody
      "Dale," he said, "that's a horrible theory. Do you want people to give up? Do you want them
to stop trying? To lie down and let the darkness overwhelm them? If you can't win, you might as
well bring the game to an end? Could you possibly entertain the thought of trading a booming
civilization of several billion for a few hundred thousand hunter-gatherers who regularly get
eaten by wild animals, just so a few people avoid exposure to power lines? Is that what makes
sense to you?
      "First, your theory's cute, but it's just not true. It's easy to make a broad claim that new
inventions bring equal power for good or harm. Maybe that's even partially true. But we still
have a choice. We can still use our options well. It is not a requirement that guns cut short more
lives than they save. Nuclear power could fuel more growth than it destroys.
      "The fact of the matter is, despite all your lovely examples, the world is actually safer. The
life expectancy is increasing steadily. Within the range of written history, you could have once
been considered an old man at your ripe age of twenty-two. But in our society, you're still living
off the beneficence of your parents, effectively a child. Marriage, kids, retirement, and old age
are distant fantasies to you at best. You have yet to experience the "real world" for even a day. If
modern science's guess is correct, you still have three quarters of your life ahead of you. Sixty
full years given to you by all these "dangerous inventions" that might one day get to you, if your
own worn-down parts don't get to you first. America may have a greater advantages than most
places, but there is no location on Earth that couldn't be reached by flood relief or emergency
medical supplies if the situation requires. We are all so much better off it almost boggles the
mind. That you have the time to bemoan an overblown sense of futility instead of working six
days a week in a mine or a factory is proof enough.
     "Even if none of that were true, even if we really couldn't win, couldn't break even, couldn't
get out of the game, I still wouldn't blow my nose with your theory. As philosophers, we have a
moral obligation to consider the potential effects of our ideas. We have to consider what we
offer our listeners and what they might do with it. It's not a question of free speech: The
government won't arrest you for suggesting that life is pointless. You can espouse any belief you
want, but you're still responsible for what you say. Goodness, Dale, what if somebody actually
took you seriously? She'd give up everything! She might take incredible risks because she
believes she's already in such danger. Or, if she's feeling suicidal, she might decide to embrace
the inevitable and end it all. If there are any positives, I don't see them. Are there any? Lethalpy
is the philosophy of defeat, of aimlessness and loss. It declares that all creation is out to get us,
and there's no escaping.
     "I refuse--absolutely refuse--to believe that the universe might be arranged as a twisted joke
that dooms us to loss. Our world is too elaborate, too complex, too ... fucking amazing to be set
up just so we can all live some pitiful, futile existence. If I know anything, I know that much.
There may be a divine creator or we may face complete randomness, but we are most definitely
not here for the sole purpose of having to die.
     "Yes, we all will die. Every one of us. Whatever comes after, we still know that this time
around blackness awaits us at the end. Sure. Absolutely. And yes, most of us don't find that fact
pleasant. I'm not pleased to know my end is inevitable. But that's what I face, same as you, or
Mirriam, or my parents, or the President of the United States of America. Your lethalpy tells me
we're already dead. But I tell you this: If we can't avoid death, then death is not losing. Meeting
the inevitable cannot be a failure. It's what is meant to happen. And if this incredible, elaborate,
beautiful opportunity to exist is granted to us for just a short while, I guarantee you it is not
given with the primary intention of causing us pain when that gift is used up."
     Ish stopped speaking and stared at me, breathing heavily. I felt sheepish. Meeting his gaze
was almost painful, but I couldn't look away. Those dark eyes were shooting laser beams of
conviction straight into my skull. I wanted to say something, but I didn't know what to say.
Defend myself? Apologize? Ask for guidance? My roommate had used the f-word, for Pete's
sake. Just for being the cause of that, I felt miserable.
     Just when the silence became unbearable, Ish said the darndest thing. Even through my
anger and shame, I'll never forget the words. They're going on my tombstone someday:

    "A meal that has been eaten is not a waste;
    a song is not pointless when the last note fades;
    a life is not worthless because it has ended.
    That they existed at all is reason for joy."

    I looked away, studying the carpet. For the first time, I noticed a stain in the corner that
looked like a monkey's face. It stared back at me with a vaguely curious expression. What was I
going to do?
    "Look, Ish, I ..." I stammered.
    My roommate picked up his magazine sharply. "Enough. Don't you have a thesis to write?"
     His question hit me like a fist. I'd never seen him angry before. It was shocking.
Distressing. And infuriating, too, because I did have a thesis to write. Ish knew I was behind,
that things weren't progressing smoothly. And I knew he was already done with his: a sixty-page
masterpiece. Magna cum laude was practically guaranteed to him, while I struggled with doubts
about my graduating at all. He had to be aware of all this, had to realize that a comment from
him would sting.
     Who knows what I might have said in return, if my friends hadn't intervened. Ish and I
coming to blows? Not likely, but it could have been that bad. Match and powder keg. Sodium
and water. Watermelon and sledgehammer. Confrontation was not in the cards, though, because
Leon chose that moment to come clomping up the front porch and knock on the door.
     I didn't know it was him at the time, but Ish was seated across the room and I stood closer
to the door. In a daze I answered it.
     "Hiya, Martin!" Leon's lopsided grin greeted me through the glass of the storm door. Over
his shoulder I could see Manuel and a couple of his friends standing in the yard. Manny was
gesturing broadly and the other two were laughing.
     "Oh, hi, Leon."
     "I'm on my way into campus to go to bonus meal. You coming along?"
     "Bonus meal?" I looked blankly at my wrist, which was unadorned.
     "Yeah, it's 10:30. Tonight's Chinese night, too. Don't want to miss that."
     "Okay. Right, bonus meal." Gradually, meaning was sinking through my turbulent
thoughts. "Just let me get my wallet."
     I climbed the stairs to my room slowly. I was still in a sort of shock. Ish, snapping like that.
Unreal. And the comment about writing the thesis, that just hurt. The truth has much more
power to wound than does fiction. It took me nearly a minute to figure out where I'd left my
wallet: its usual place on my night stand, out in plain sight. That's how upset I was.
     When I returned to the entryway, Leon was exchanging pleasantries with the innocuous Ish
Kent as if unaware that this was the same man who purportedly ground his own toothpaste
nightly from fresh diatoms and peppermint plants. Even though I was still boiling, my roommate
seemed to have cooled to his normal collected demeanor.
     "Let's go," I said, interrupting Leon.
     "Sure. Okay. Seeya, Ish!"
     Ish sounded almost jovial when he offered his farewells. "Bye, Leon. Later, Dale."
     I gave a sort of grunt, the most I felt like offering my roommate at the moment. We stepped
outside, caught up with Manny and his comrades. It was at that point I took my one truly unfair
shot at Ish in four years of sparring. Sure, I was angry and it would have been hard to explain,
     But I didn't play by my own rules and now I regret my words. After all those years of trying
to prove by any means possible I was better than him, in one quick moment of anger I sealed my
     As we started walking towards campus, Leon mused, "Martin, why does Ish always call you
     "I have no idea."
     "What a weirdo," Manny offered.
     I remained silent. Let 'em think the bastard's strange and inconsiderate, I thought. Fine by
me. Even as I formed the thought, a strange twinge ran through me. This wasn't right. This
wasn't how we played our game. Man to man, skill against skill, brain against brain. Not by
cheating and lying. In the darkness, I blushed with embarrassment, but nobody saw. There was
still time, I realized, to straighten out the confusion, clear Ixthyaki's name. I could absolve my
conscience, reestablish my integrity. The window of salvation was open to me, but I walked the
rest of the way to campus in silence.

      Surprisingly, the actual writing of the honors thesis wasn't quite as miserable as all the rest
of the ordeal. Still not enjoyable, of course, but not a root canal, either. Partly because it's hard
for me not to like writing of any sort. And partly, it was because writing meant things were
coming to a close. Mostly I was just resigned to trudging through it. So much time and energy
had gone into everything already, what was a couple of hours spent in front of the computer
typing? Just look over the notes, type them up in complete sentences, add some conjunctions,
some examples, an occasional transitional paragraph. Footnote compulsively. [Footnote:
Adequate footnoting makes any document feel researched, well-supported, and wise. Footnotes
are your friends.] Move things around for a couple of weeks, and viola! You've got a piece of
crap paper.
      In the end, I only gave myself a little over three weeks to write the paper, starting a few
days before the oral exam. Even at two pages a day, I figured that would be enough time to work
out a fairly polished 45-page thesis. And how likely was it that I would only turn out two pages
a day? Mathematically speaking, I had it all worked out. Months of procrastination were totally
justified by statistics.
      With a quiet resignation, I spent two to four hours every evening in front of the computer. I
even actually worked fairly consistently. Not too many computer games, not too much internet.
Just straightforward compilation, transcription, and composition. Slowly, a very lengthy and
very dull discourse unfolded on my computer. Nearly half of it was background, borrowed
heavily from the disappearing-reappearing book by Elbert. This was required to explain what I
was trying to get at, which again wasn't much of a point, really.
      Every few days, I met briefly with Alper. Describing to him the page count and asking for
clarifications about passages I was quoting was about the extent of our interaction. On a regular
basis he ventured concerned inquiries as to the depth of my conclusions. It was coming together,
I told him. The brilliance and cohesiveness would come, I was sure. They always did. My
advisor just didn't understand the art of being a Zen master of homework, I assumed. Despite his
cluttered environment and erratic trains of thought (or perhaps because of them), he approached
all of his work patiently and methodically. Alper was a man of long checklists, thorough
explanations (if occasionally quirky), and he progressed with a slow and steady pace through
whatever he was working on. I'm more of a "genius strikes at two a.m. and I churn out six pages
in an hour but then sit motionless for another thirty minutes" sort of guy. It's the basic difference
between the tortoise approach and the hare approach. Away from Ish, I was the hare once again.
Or so I thought.
      There was another subtle hint to Alper's questioning that I didn't get until later. He was
trying to figure out if I actually had any material of quality. "Do you have anything interesting?"
he'd ask. But for me, after the first month's novelty had worn off the subject had lost practically
all interest. Day by day, that interest faded. By the time of writing the paper, I was accustomed
to saying, "yeah, it's interesting" as a reflexive response. I assumed that my lack of interest in the
subject was dulling what otherwise might be an exciting paper. It didn't occur to me that the
things I was writing about wouldn't still be fascinating to someone who enjoyed the topic. That
conclusion was proven to be about as bright as "red means go."
      Three nights before the paper was due, I stayed up past dawn putting the finishing touches
on the first draft of the composition. It was a long run, ten hours straight, organizing, cleaning,
and filing in the gaps. I must have printed fifteen copies trying to get the layout and footnotes
right. Finally, around ten, I finished a draft I was happy with. It wasn't a masterpiece but it was
decent, if maybe a bit thin. A couple of points that I didn't understand as well as I should,
probably. Maybe an occasional hole in my logic. But Alper could clear all that up. For now, I
had a good draft. Vaguely dazed by the experience, I stepped out into the dewy morning sunlight
to deliver a copy to my advisor.
      It was our normal meeting time; Alper was in his office.
      "Oh, hi, Martin." No matter that our meetings were scheduled, he always sounded surprised
to see me.
      "Good morning, Mr. Alper. I finished the paper last night. I brought you a copy."
      "Oh, good. I look forward to reading it."
      "I was hoping you could look it over and let me know if there's anything that needs cleaning
      "Of course."
      "There may be a few grammatical errors, some bad punctuation, things like that. I was up
all night last night finishing it."
      "I'm sorry to hear that."
      "No, it's fine. I usually do that with papers. I just need a little rest and some time away, and
I'll be able to catch any of that stuff tomorrow."
      "Okay. I'll still mark anything that I see."
      I left him to his work and went about my business. For twenty-four hours I refused to even
think about the paper. It was the first day in three solid weeks that I didn't put a sizable chunk of
my day into the project. It felt wonderful. In the time that I would have normally been working, I
watched some TV, took a walk to the arb, stopped by Polly's house and hung out for a bit,
wandered over to Gibson's and treated myself to a pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, did some
light reading for my history course, and then went home and sat on the porch for a while. The
volume of time available in an evening astounded me. It could be so pleasant. I felt like I was
melting the entire time. I'll never take an evening for granted again, I promised myself.
      Late the next afternoon I stopped by Alper's office to pick up his comments on my paper. It
would have been smart to go in sooner, but I was enjoying the freedom of waiting for my
advisor so much I didn't want it to end. Besides, it probably wouldn't take more than a few
hours, or another all-nighter at worst. I was ready; I'd slept from midnight till noon, catching up.
      "Oh, hi, Martin," Alper said.
      "Hi, Mr. Alper. I just stopped by to pick up your comments on the paper."
      "Oh, I haven't had that much time to look at it yet. I've gone through the first five pages or
so. Why don't you come back in another four or five days and I'll have it ready for you then."
      "Four or five days?"
      "Is something wrong?"
      "Yeah. Um. It's--that is, the paper's, ah, you know, due tomorrow."
      "The paper's due tomorrow?"
     "Yeah, sure. May 2nd."
     "Oh my. If I'd realized the paper was due so soon, I would have asked for it more than a
week ago, to give me proper time to look it over."
     "I'm sorry. I didn't realize you'd want that much time." How could he not know when the
paper was due? Everyone knew when my thesis had to be handed in. My friends, my family.
Evelyn, the philosophy department secretary. The staff in the library, the people behind the
counter at the Java Zone. Everyone I talked to. It was so huge. I'd been counting down for more
than two months. How could my advisor of all people possibly be unaware that this horrible,
momentous ordeal was supposed to end in 24 hours? And if he needed a week, why the hell
hadn't he ever told me? I couldn't believe it.
     "Well," he said, "I'll look it over tonight and meet with you tomorrow. I wish I had more
time. Theses usually take several rounds of revisions. There's a saying I follow: 'When you think
you're ninety percent done, then you're only halfway done.' Let's just hope you're further along
than I thought you were."
     I wasn't sure whether to be worried by his concern or be upset by his implications. Neither
was good news. When I left his office, a heavy weight seemed to have shackled itself to my
ankles. But after a few minutes, the weight slipped loose. After all, I was practically done! Just a
few quick edits, work in Alper's comments, and I'd have a paper. It was almost over! All those
hours and months and meetings and such boring, boring details. All that come to an end. My
god! I wanted to dance and sing.
     That evening I worked a little on my thesis. There was more I could do, I knew, but I just
couldn't bring myself to care any more. It was complete. Alper would give me some feedback.
And then I'd wrap it up and be done. That was enough. For the second night in three weeks, I
went to bed early and got a good night's sleep.
     And boy did I need that rest, because the next day was the longest and most frantic day of
my life.
     I woke feeling wonderful, practically skipping on my way to Alper's office. It was my day
of emancipation, after all. I had no idea how bad things were about to get. I knocked on the door
     "Oh, hi, Martin. Come in."
     I sat down across from him. He picked up my paper from his desk and handed it to me.
     "Well, I hope this will be a good learning experience for you, and that you learn that when
you take on a large responsibility, you start to manage your life in a way so you can meet your
     Oh, shit. Where the hell had that come from? A punch in the face would have been less
shocking. Something in my game plan had just gone horribly wrong. I was in trouble. Deep,
deep trouble. The girlfriend is pregnant sort of trouble. Driving with tequila sort of trouble.
     Damage control. That's what this day was going to be about.
     Slowly, Alper walked me through the entire document, trying to fix all the most blatant
errors. It became clear to me that arguments I was sure I understood all along I didn't really get,
which made about a third of the paper pointless information--information which was already a
stretch to include anyway. I'd gotten so many things wrong, I couldn't believe it. Page after page
of red ink. One of my basic arguments was based on a passage from Edwards I'd interpreted
completely backwards. In other cases, Alper explained concepts to me for probably the fifth
time over the course of the year, and only on that day did I actually get the idea for the very first
time. I kept wishing he'd said so much of this at some earlier point. I also wished I'd figured it
out for myself, or remembered it. And maybe I could have, if I'd thought about it more, spent
more time with it. I don't know. The whole experience has discouraged me enough that I'm not
so sure how good I really am at philosophy. I'm not sure how much I ever really understood.
And that scares the hell out of me, not knowing if I can trust in my abilities. I no longer know
whether I know anything, when it comes down to it. The Zen master of timing has lost his
enlightenment. Now I'm back with the novices, painting fences and waxing cars for the Master
of Time Management.
      These worries cropped up later. At the time, I was just frantic to try to fix the worst of my
blunders, clean up the major gaps in my logic, and get a presentable paper put together within
eight hours. It would be like running a marathon. Nonstop grueling labor. But if I didn't finish
the race, my entire academic standing could be at stake. Not just honors--if I bombed badly
enough, I might not graduate. Suddenly all the stuff I had tried to avoid by sticking with honors
was staring me in the face anyway. How would I explain the disaster? How could I botch things
that badly?
      I won't call it panic, because I was under control on the surface. But that day was the most
stressful experience of my life. My mind whirled. I felt dizzy, I was thinking so hard and typing
so quickly. Occasional waves of nausea washed over me from worry, but I didn't even slow
down the pace of my work because I couldn't afford to. Luckily, I had no other significant
projects to take care of that day, because I didn't leave my computer for anything other than
bathroom and water breaks until I was done. No food. I didn't even get up to turn on music.
There just wasn't room for that thought in my head. For eight hours straight, that's how I
worked. At the end, I'd managed to address every comment and patch most of the holes. I even
managed to work through the major misunderstanding which had threatened to invalidate one
third of the paper. It took some of the most creative and elaborate analyses I've ever put to paper,
but it worked.
      When I dropped off four copies of the paper at the philosophy department office at 4:45, it
was with a feeling more akin to defeat than elation. I knew that the thesis was among the worst
papers I had ever written. But time was up, and that was all I could do. I'd just have to call it
done and take my lumps. Other bad papers had slipped through with passable grades, so maybe I
still had a chance of pulling off honors.
      Whether or not there was a cum laude on my diploma, I'd known since 9:30 that morning
I'd failed completely at the intent of the project. Alper's conversation alone didn't entirely
convince me of that; when I'd left his office, I was convinced there was still hope. But as I
started up my computer to make my first hurried edits, a note at the top of the first page had
caught my eye. My advisor's wobbly script informed me, "This betrays a shallow knowledge of
the subject. Only an expert in the field could understand what you're talking about." It had
become very clear to me how much I hadn't understood. I'd thought I was getting it. I'd thought I
was learning. But here he was, telling me bluntly that I was incoherent. I could echo back their
fancy phrases, but that was it. No honorable student was I. Just another fool who didn't get it.

     Ish's final and most egregious act of showing me up wasn't even intended by either one of
us to be a contest. That doesn't take any of the sting out of it, though.
     The day after I turned in my thesis, Ish handed me a thick stack of paper. "Hey, Dale, I was
wondering if you'd be willing to read this. I'd appreciate hearing what you think."
      "What is it?"
      "It's a story I wrote. Ever since I finished my thesis and my senior piano performance, I've
had some extra time at my disposal. I was inspired, so I wrote a story."
      I flipped through the stack of pages. "This is pretty thick. There's got to be something like
fifty pages here."
      He gave a brief nod. "Fifty-four," he said solemnly.
      "You just finished your recital a week ago."
      "You mean you wrote a fifty-four page story in a week?"
      "Is that unusual?"
      "The introductory creative writing classes only ask students to turn in a five to ten page
story every two weeks."
      "Oh. Well, this is only a first draft. I'm sure they put much more effort into what they hand
      Not bloody likely, I thought. But I didn't argue with him. Instead I told him I'd take a look at
it as soon as I got a chance. He thanked me and left my room. I started to go back to my
computer game, but then out of curiosity I stopped and took a look at the cover page. Hangups
and Perversions by Ixthyaki Ramanaharayanan, it said.
      Hangups and perversions? That didn't sound at all like Ish. But it sounded entertaining.
Perhaps even more entertaining than a computer game. I picked up the stack and flipped to the
first page.

           Wynona Lott looked up from her diary and shouted across the hall to her roommate,
      "Hey Marybeth, I'm trying to describe last night properly, and I'm not sure about the turn
      of phrase. How does 'pulsing pickle of passion' sound to you?"
           There was a brief pause, which Wynona correlated with her roommate's hands
      tracing out the path of the crucifix in the air, followed by a meek, "Eww."
           "In other words, it's perfect. Thanks Marybeth!" Wynona smiled devilishly, chewing
      on the end of her pen.

     What the hell? Ish had written this? I moved over to the bed and stretched out, already
amused. Pulsing pickle of passion, indeed. It was impossible to resist, though. I returned to the
story. After a few pages, I was chuckling lightly. By the halfway point I was laughing out loud
on a regular basis. Hangups and Perversions was the tale of a borderline nymphomaniac who
lives with a conservative southern gal. Wynona is bluntly open about her sexual exploits, much
to her roommate's distress, and records them in her diary, which she hopes to sell when she
becomes famous. For her part, Marybeth horrifies Wynona by engaging in activities like line
dancing and needlecrafts. Sort of an Odd Couple for the nineties, except that when you think
you know where it's going, it turns out that Marybeth is a lesbian and falls in love with her
roommate, while Wynona reveals a few surprises of her own.
     As much as I didn't want to, I liked the story. I read the whole thing in one sitting. It was
unbelievably funny, partly from realizing Ish had written all this gritty, frank material about sex,
but mostly because of the story itself. And it was masterfully done. It might have needed a touch
of polish, but it was no first draft material. When I finished reading, there were a few brief
moments where jealousy burned through me. In four years, Ish had never expressed any interest
in writing. Contrariwise I had told nearly everyone I'd ever met that I wanted to write since I was
a child. But after four years of school Ish had a fifty page story to show for his time here and I
still had nothing. Worse than that, it was a good story. And he'd done it in only a week. Because
he didn't know what to do with his spare time. Because he'd finished his honors thesis early.
God, it galled me.
       But I just couldn't stay angry at Ish. The story was too good. I read it again, and a third time.
It kept growing on me. I wanted to know more about the exploits of Wynona Lott and Marybeth
Olson. I find it impossible to be mad at what makes me laugh, and Ish and his story made me
laugh. There is nothing more precious in all the world than a truly humorous piece of literature.
       I couldn't be mad at Ish, but I could be mad at myself. Why hadn't I ever taken the time to
do something like that? Why wasn't I that funny? How come, when I'd finished my own thesis
and had evening time to spare, I turned to my computer to play games? If four years in a fertile,
creative community wouldn't get me to write, what would? And why hadn't I finished my thesis
early like Ish had? Or why hadn't I taken care of my homework earlier so I could start writing
now? Maybe I could squeeze in a story before graduation, I thought, but then I killed the idea. I
was still going to be way too busy. I'd put off too much reading for my other classes and needed
to play catch-up during the last two weeks. And then I had two smallish papers to write (10-
pagers seemed small by honors standards) and two exams to study for. Besides, I knew that even
if I tried to make a contest out of it I couldn't match the impressiveness of Hangups and
Perversions in terms of time frame, page count, or quality. On what other level might I
compete? I couldn't think of any. There just wasn't any point in trying.

      This was the moment of judgement.
      With a stomach full of vinegar and beach sand, I knocked on Professor Alper's door frame,
bracing myself for the worst. The skepticism of my compatriots aside, there was only one
possible reason why I could have been summoned to this room.
      That's not totally true, I corrected myself; last year at this time I was asked in to see Alper
when I was awarded the prize for that paper on free will. It had been a surprise, and came with
$50 in cash. Just enough to purchase the clothes I needed to wear to the formal reception for
award-winning students. True to style, the good professor informed me of the news a week after
I'd already been invited to the dinner. I was quite confused by the whole invitational experience,
compounded by the fact that I had been napping just before the phone rang. The woman on the
other end of the phone seemed as flabbergasted by my denial of knowledge of an award as I was
by her trying to get me to agree to go to a mysterious dinner.
      Actually, Alper might not have ever told me about the award if I hadn't stopped in at his
office and asked him directly. It seemed a little tacky to press him for knowledge about a prize I
was expecting, but I was damned if I was going to dress up for a formal dinner without good
reason. The professor cheerily confirmed in his absentminded fashion that I was indeed
receiving the Boris Newcastle Award in Autonomy, and in fact my benefactor would be present
at the dinner. Alper had wanted the moment to be a surprise, it seemed, to be given out at the
awards ceremony. The details of how I was supposed to be both surprised by an award and
invited to the reception of said prize escapes me as much as it must have escaped him.
      But this time I knew the news was not good.
      The feeling had been with me for hours now, ever since I'd first gotten the message that
Alper wanted to see me immediately. After my morning classes I'd found a note on my mailbox.
Evelyn confirmed the news that Alper had been asking about me. It was a week after I'd handed
in my thesis, and ever since I'd been waiting for judgement to strike. This was the death knell, I
was sure.
     "I'm sure it's fine," Evelyn said. "They haven't denied anyone honors in more than a decade,
and that time it was because the student withdrew from the program partway through. I'm sure
you're fine."
     "Did anyone else get a message like this?" I asked.
     "Not that I know of. So it probably doesn't have anything to do with honors. Alper's your
advisor, so I'm sure it's probably about something else."
     When I got to his office, no one answered my knock. The light behind the door was dim,
too. I rapped again, just to be sure. No reply. Where the hell was he? How was I supposed to go
see him immediately if he wasn't in?
     I left King and headed northwest past Mudd library, back to the student union. I had to go
somewhere, just to keep moving. My stomach knotted and churned. Every few minutes I'd have
to remind myself to take deeper breaths.
     As I passed through the middle of Wilder bowl, Alper's shape suddenly registered in my
peripheral vision. He was at the top of the ramp to Mudd, just entering the library main door.
Fear raced through me. There was the man who had some sort of urgent message for me. I could
run and try to catch him, but did I really want to know what he had to say? Would he be
prepared outside of his office? Was I prepared? The man seemed so innocent, innocuously
going about some errand. As he disappeared into the cavernous entryway, anger gradually
replaced my fear. What was he doing going about regular daily life when mine was being
warped and twisted? Who was he to bear such weighty news, and why didn't he seem nearly
burdened enough? Who was this man to make my life hell?
     I caught myself not breathing, forced my lungs to intake air. Nothing I could do about
anything now. Just go get my mail and wait for Alper to show up at his office again.
     Predictably, my mailbox was empty. I guess I'd just checked it twenty minutes earlier, but I
wasn't thinking very clearly. Still, there's nothing like no mail to make a bad day worse.
     Disappointed, I walked slowly through the Wilder snack bar. It was bustling with the
typical lunchtime crowd. Long lines at the condiment bar in the dining area, longer lines inside
the cafeteria portion. Students waiting for their drink and sandwich and fries and cookie, or
some similar combination. Dave stood at the end of that line.
     "Hey, Martin. How's it going?"
     "Not much."
     Dave laughed. "I asked you how it was going, you know."
     "Oh. I dunno. I just got a message from Alper to see him immediately, but he's not in his
office. Did you get any messages from Mr. Stern?"
     "No, nothing. Why?"
     "I think it's about honors. Probably not good news."
     "No way. After all you've been through? Of course you're going to get honors. You did way
better than the rest of us on the written test."
     "Yeah, but I was all over the place with the oral portion." I didn't mention it, but the thought
ran though my head just how awful I'd realized the paper was on that last morning. Worst paper
      "I'm sure it's something else."
      Not so convinced, I reluctantly demurred to my friend's encouragement. The fear still
lurked just under my skin, waiting for any excuse to burst forth and leave me in tatters. With
nothing else to do, I joined Dave in line and gathered my lunch. Bacon cheeseburger, french
fries, a tall glass of Pepsi and lemonade, mixed. And of course the ubiquitous eversoft chocolate
chip cookie enclosed in a protective wax paper sheath. From the condiment bar, I filled a paper
cup two-thirds full with ketchup and splashed Tabasco(TM) on top: the perfect mix for the
dipping of french-fried potatoes. Except for pierogie night or breakfast night at bonus meal,
there was not a tastier meal to be found in all of Campus Dining Services. And it all still tasted
like cardboard. Even the Tabasco. Spicy cardboard, maybe, but still cardboard.
      After lunch, I followed Dave back to the mail room and checked the box for the third time
in an hour. Once again, it was empty.
      My friend and I parted ways then, he going to a midafternoon class and I tremulously back
to King and the philosophy offices.
      The sun shone brightly and warmly. It was one of those perfect Oberlin spring days.
Pleasant, refreshing. Precious as diamonds for their scarcity. The tank tops were out, lounging in
the midst of Wilder bowl. Long unseen flesh would have normally been a treat on such a day.
But all I could sense was doom. I might as well have been trudging shackled through a dungeon
maze. How could such a good day go so bad so fast? I muttered into my mental prison, gauging
the echoes as they bounced down the dank stone halls.
      Alper's office remained dark when I checked there again. Evelyn met me in the hall and
gave me an inquisitive look. I told her I hadn't been able to find my advisor yet. She harumphed
indignantly and shook her head.
      What now? I had no classes that afternoon. Aimlessly, I wandered outside again and slowly
found my way towards downtown Oberlin. Southeast across the corner of Tappan Square, east
past the north entrance of the Conservatory. Past the Co-Op Book Store. Just past the doors, I
reversed my direction and decided to go in. There was always plenty of stuff at the book store.
Stuff was good. Stuff might keep my mind off things. With an edgy desperation I delved deep
into the recesses of the store. Sweatshirts, flannel boxers, t-shirts, mugs, pens, and window
stickers emblazoned with the Oberlin logo. Paraphernalia corner, it seemed. Strange, it occurred
to me, I owned nothing with the college name on it--not even a folder or a notebook.
      In a moment of inspiration, I plucked a window sticker from the rack. It was a simple one,
just the two words "OBERLIN COLLEGE" in all caps, written in the maroon and gold that
served as school colors.
      The books on the shelves slid by me in a blur. No names or titles registered in my flickering
vision. Upstairs, the music selection wasn't much more appealing. Who could look for music
when disaster loomed? How do you maintain an interest in normal life when fears threaten to
become reality? If I failed honors it would be just as bad as if I had dropped it months ago.
Would I graduate? How would I get by if I didn't? How would I explain it to everybody I knew?
What would I do with all my friends gone and no housing lined up for next year? How would I
and my parents afford an unanticipated extra semester? Would I still get the same financial aid I
had been getting, or would going beyond unexpectedly screw it all up? How could I even begin
to cope with another four classes, when I wanted so badly for everything to be over and done
     I cursed Alper again for keeping me in such suspense. How was I supposed to do anything
with this shit on my mind?
     I went back down to main level, and down again to the lower level. Pens, pencils, paper,
computer software, a smattering of unpurchased textbooks. I flipped through some of the
remaining titles. There was one for Japanese Thought and Religion, the spring-semester
counterpart to the Chinese version I'd wanted so badly to take. I caressed its binding like it was a
long-lost lover. What mysteries lay inside its pages? How enlightened might it have made me? I
thought of all those classes, all those hours being lectured to gently--learning about a version of
Zen that actually works--by some professor who wasn't Alper, someone who would recognize
neither Edwards nor Elbert. What else had I missed? So many evenings with my friends.
Hanging out, getting food, talking idly late into the night or sharing a few beers. Playing cards.
Doing art projects. Parties. Dating? Probably. It had been a long, slow, dry year and I held
honors at least partially responsible. You just can't make up for something like that. And then
there were all the episodes of the Simpsons I'd had to skip. All the quiet walks in the arb,
listening to the night. How many books could I have read? How many stories might I have
written? All of it. All of that wonderful stuff. I'd missed it all, in exchange for yet another
     Assuming I graduated, there were only a few weeks left to me here at Oberlin. I'd realized
that a few weeks before, sitting in Leon's room, catching up on the past three months of
infrequent companionship. The epiphany hit me that there was some finite and very countable
number of times I'd be sitting in his room again. In fact, I might be able to count on the fingers
of my hands the total number times I would ever see my friend again. I didn't know where I
would end up after graduation, nor did he. We might lose each other, or just drift apart over a
number of years. In the next thee weeks, I'd have the chance to talk to him maybe five times,
maybe ten. Who knew? Then that might be it, perhaps forever. The same for everyone else.
Ginevra, Manny, Dave, Polly, Seth, and all the others. Shit. It was all over. The whole Oberlin
experience was coming to an end. Goodbye, friends. Nice knowing ya. Sorry I blew off dozens
of opportunities to enjoy your company over the better portion of our best year, all in order to do
some stupid research project. I really am sorry. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Stupid
Martin, having to be sorry.
     I flipped through the other textbooks in the basement of the Co-Op. What else had I missed
out on? The African Experience. C++ Programming. Medieval Europe and the Crusades.
Advanced Mathematical Functions and Their Solutions in a Non-Euclidean Workspace. How
had I let all those things slide by? I flashed back to the first meeting with H. Royden James,
when I'd explained I was dropping the Calculus class in favor of the English course. Now it was
eight semesters later, and I never had taken Calculus. How could I have let that happen? I
cradled the book to my chest. Maybe it wasn't too late to make some amends.
     Wandering through the writing utensils section, I picked up a couple of pens and doodled
on the provided sketch pads. "All's well that ends well," I scratched in neon green felt tip.
Wishful thinking, that. "Andre the Giant has a posse," I printed out in ultra-fine blue. "I [heart]
G.M." appeared in black. And in heavy red I scribbled out:
     Part of me felt bad that some minor might stumble across the pad and, being one of the
innocent few who hadn't heard the word by the time he was old enough to read, would ask his
parents about it. Guiltily, I glanced around the floor. A woman stood guard at the help desk by
the stairs, but no one else was around. I furtively palmed the note paper from the shelf and
pocketed it.
     It was all I could do not to whistle nonchalantly as I passed the desk and ascended again to
the main level. I looked around, but there was nothing left that I could bear to pretend to be
interested in any longer. Time to leave.
     I approached the cashier and lay down the car decoration and the book. Whimsy prompted
me to ask, "Do you have some scissors?"
     "Um ... yeah." After rummaging for a moment, the woman produced a healthy-sized set of
shears from underneath the counter and handed them to me.
     "Thanks." I picked up the sticker again and eyed the gap between the N and the C. With one
swift snip I managed a relatively perpendicular cut. I returned the scissors.
     The cashier rang up the sticker and the book. $1.95 for the sticker, $55.99 for the book.
"Um, you know what, I don't think I'm going to buy the book at this point." Non-Euclidean
geometry--what was I thinking? The woman patiently took the book back off my bill. I paid the
fee and exited with my pieces of window sticker.
     In desperate hope, I retraced my steps back to King, but Alper's office was still locked. It
was a tempting thought to return to the library where I'd last seen him and run through the halls
shouting his name until I found him. The feeling of unbelievable annoyance began to creep up
on me, taking a place beside the omnipresent fear of disaster.
     Nothing better to do, I went back outside. There really wasn't anything I'd be able to
concentrate on, I knew, so my feet began the march southward towards home.
     I stopped at my car and climbed in the back seat. I pulled the COLLEGE portion of the
window sticker out of my pocket and slapped it onto the rear windshield. It took some coaxing
to work all the air bubbles out, but eventually I sat back to admire my work, satisfied as the
moment would allow. The OBERLIN piece I put into the glove compartment for later. I hadn't
earned it yet, I felt, and depending on how the day went I wasn't so sure I'd feel like advertising.
A generic education: I could stand behind that.
     Now that I've graduated, I do have all fourteen letters displayed on my car's rear window,
but I made a few more surgical slices to the plastic first. Currently the letters read "loco green
libel." I'm not particularly attached to the message, though. I go down every day and rearrange
the letters to find something new. So far my messages have included:
     Ill globe encore
     One gerbil cello
     Reel big colonel
     I nobler college
     Oblong eel relic
     Lone rebel logic
     I beg Cole, "Enroll!"
     And my favorite, because of its politically correct implications (with a hint of irony in the
accent), "Color bline glee."
     Inside my house, I wandered aimlessly from bedroom to kitchen to bathroom to living room
and back. No one was home. Seth, of course, was almost never there; he hadn't been seen in-
home for more than a few minutes in months. Mirriam was done with honors, too, but her other
extracurricular activities kept her out all day. Ish would be at the library for hours yet. I stood in
the doorway to his room and gazed in. His walls still held the photograph and the painting he'd
made of that valley behind his family home. They were amazing, really. Beautiful. With a place
like that to look out on for eighteen years, how could a person not turn out like Ixthyaki? It
occurred to me I'd never seen him paint or use a camera in the entire time I'd known him. He
was that good, and he never made use of his talents. How funny. Ish was awesome at
everything, but no matter what he did he'd be wasting some of his unparalleled skills. True, he
was an excellent student, but he was a master painter who wasn't painting, a master
photographer who wasn't shooting, a master poet who only churned out some occasional
magnetic drivel, a master writer who had only written one fifty-page story in four years. Ish was
perhaps the greatest waste of talent in the county! Comparatively, I was only a decent student
given over to mediocre slacking. For the first time that day I smiled.
     But then my eyes passed over the sheet on the wall notifying Ish that he'd received highest
honors and would be graduating magna cum laude in just a few short weeks. The dams broke,
the sea of mental worries came flooding in, and my smile swirled down the drain. Maybe I
should just give up, I thought. After four years, it just wasn't worth trying to compete with the
guy any more. But that was the least of my worries. I was used to losing to Ish; I wasn't used to
having my scholastic record fall apart.
     I paced nervously for another fifteen minutes before lying down. Maybe I could sleep for a
while. Curled on my side, blankets pulled over me for extra warmth that the core of my being
seemed unable to provide, I tried to let go my mind. Fitfully I drifted in and out of conscious
worrying. At lucid moments, I berated myself for my performance during the oral exam and my
awful, awful understanding of the subject of my paper. So much had clicked together that last
morning when it was too late to do anything about it. During my less coherent moments, visions
of Alper floated through my inner sight. Alper juggling. Alper painting. Alper presenting a proof
that God did exist, and that he and Ish were among the chosen people while I was one of the
damned. Alper standing with a melted pocket watch, demanding that I explain the essence of
time. Alper making me run a maze again and again, even though I could never find the path to
the exit. Alper parting the waters of the Oberlin reservoir and sending me through the muck to
the other side, where I would be banished, to defile the institution no more.
     After an hour or so I got up, unsure whether the moments of clarity or the moments of
dreaming had been worse. It was nearly three-thirty. My advisor would have been in class for
the past hour, but he should be getting out just about now. I pulled on my shoes and trudged
with a dead man's shuffle back north to the philosophy department.
     His light was on, the door ajar.
     This was the moment of judgement.
     I knocked on Professor Alper's door frame, bracing myself for the worst.
     "Oh, hi, Martin. Come in," he said. It surprises me still that doom can be coached in such
an innocuous voice.
     "I got a note saying you wanted to see me."
     "Ah, yes. Have a seat."
     I took the proffered chair and sat very still, frozen in the sun-bright headlights of
     Alper shuffled pages for a moment as if looking for something. He muttered quietly to
himself as he did so. Eventually he put everything down and took a deep breath.
     "I asked you to come in so I could talk to you about your honors research. After quite a bit
of deliberation, we've decided that we're going to deny you honors."
     Ah. There it was. The final truth. I'd been expecting it, and now I knew for sure. A
surprising wave of relief swept through me. At least I didn't have to worry about that any more.
All I had to do was pick up the pieces.
     Alper continued: "We felt that your work didn't go into enough original ground on the
paper. And during your oral exam you demonstrated a lack of mastery of some of the basic
concepts of philosophy. We didn't feel that we could give you credit for honors in light of that."
     "Okay," I said. "I was sort of expecting it."
     "Instead of honors, we're going to give you credit for private research, so you can still
graduate." He paused. "I think that's what's going to happen." Alper stared off into space for a
few seconds. "I know none of my advisees are at risk of not graduating this year, so you should
be okay. Wait ... are you one of my advisees?"
     "Yeah." Um, what kind of question was that? I'd only been meeting with him for the last six
semesters. I wasn't that annoyed though, because I was too busy rejoicing that I'd be able to
     "Well then you'll be fine, because I know my students are all graduating."
     "Okay, thanks." I said. That was all I needed to know. For the first time since sitting down I
moved; now that it was all over I started to rise from my chair. All I wanted to go was go home
and let everything sink in. Sometimes, when you've been worried for long enough, it takes a
while to realize that you're fine.
     But Alper interrupted. "We've only had this come up two other times since I've been here.
The faculty had a vote to decide whether the department chair, the student's academic advisor,
or the student's honors advisor should break the news. The first time they decided that the
department chair should do it, and I was the department chair then, so they made me do it that
time. The next time they decided the student's academic advisor should do it, so they made me
relay the news that time, too. This time they voted that the honors advisor should be the one
instead of the department chair, so here I am again. So I've had the misfortune of delivering the
bad news all three times."
     "Okay," I said again. What he hell was he telling me all this for? What did it have to do
with anything? Was he absolving his guilt? Trying to make sure I didn't think he enjoyed this?
Rambling incoherently because he didn't know what to say or was afraid I was going to cry?
Why wouldn't he just let me get out of there? I knew everything I needed to know. I tried to
stand again, but once again Alper interrupted.
     "All this doesn't mean you don't have a future in philosophy, you know. One of the other
students who didn't get honors--Elizabeth Bricknell--well, her story was a little different from
yours. Halfway through her year she started pursuing some side topics that her advisor suggested
against, but she focused on them anyway. Eventually her paper had nothing to do with what she
was supposed to be working on, and we couldn't give her credit for researching a different topic.
But that's beside the point. What I wanted to tell you was that she still went on to get her Ph.D.
and is teaching philosophy somewhere in Texas."
     "Okay," I echoed myself. Can I go now?
     Alper's voice grew more adamant. "So just because you didn't get honors, it doesn't mean
that you have to give up on philosophy. The other fellow who was denied honors is still in the
field too, I believe. Your career hasn't been ruined or anything like that. This is just a little
setback; it's not a major obstacle. You could still go out there and get a doctorate if you wanted
     Could he use the phrase 'didn't get honors' any more often? What was all this confused
ranting? My disaster was slowly turning into the Kevin Alper sob story and Elizabeth Bricknell's
"This Is Your Life" show. More than anything else, I just wanted to leave. Get the hell out of the
building. Maybe get the hell out of town, if possible.
     Alper was still doing his best to argue me out of a course of action I hadn't even considered.
Why the hell was he going into such detail? I was facing some bad news here, but I'd get over it.
The amount of consolation he was heaping on the situation unnerved me. Was this an even
bigger disaster than I realized? I'd stoically accepted the news at first, but now I was beginning
to grow upset. If Alper felt the need to be so conciliatory, was it worse than it seemed? I could
feel my throat tightening up and my eyes beginning to burn.
     "I realize you can't be happy about this. Of course you're not happy. If you were happy
about not receiving honors, well, then you'd be insane. And I'm pretty sure you're not insane, so
you can't be happy about not receiving honors. But just keep in mind it's not the end of the
world. Not receiving honors is a setback, and a painful one, but not the complete end of the
     "So just remember you have a long and full life ahead of you that could be brimming with
the pursuit of philosophy if you're so inclined ..." The man went on interminably. More about
himself. More about the other guy who had dropped out of honors. More about Elizabeth B.
Some side notes about the things he had tried to tell me during the long months I'd been working
with him. Nothing at all about his failure to remember the deadline for the paper and proof it
when I first gave it to him, nor to request adequate proofing time in the first place. Not that it
would have helped. He said nothing about Elbert's book that he'd buried in his office for three
months. That was fine, though. Even with those two failings on his part I could have created a
masterful paper; and as it was, even without his failings I would have been on track to write the
worst paper ever. I can't hold my shoddy work against him. But I can hold a grudge that the man
took me on a twenty minute magical mystery tour of his life and the Oberlin philosophy
department when a few short conciliatory sentences and the time to go home and cry was all I
wanted or needed.
     Eventually Alper wound down and let me leave. I stumbled through the hall in a daze.
     Evelyn stopped me before I left the building. "Martin! Did you talk to Alper yet?"
     "Uh, yeah. I didn't get honors."
     "You've got to be kidding! After all that work you put into it?"
     "Yeah. Well, I dunno. I was kind of expecting it, I guess."
     "I still think you deserved it."
     It amazed me how convinced everyone else was that I should have gotten the recognition.
Maybe they knew what I was capable of. Maybe they just assumed going through the motions
would automatically result in the outcome. (I suppose I may have had a bit of that impression,
myself.) Maybe they were just being sympathetic. Hard to say. Me, I was one of the eight people
who'd read my paper and heard my disastrous oral exam. I wouldn't have given myself credit for
the work.
      Evelyn continued, "I ran into Alper right after he got out of class and asked him if he'd
talked to you yet. When he said he hadn't, I asked him why he disappeared. He said, 'I had to get
something from the library,' and I told him that you can't just leave a message for a student to
see you immediately and then disappear for a couple of hours. 'How was he supposed to find
you?' I asked him. 'I don't know,' he said. Sometimes that guy just doesn't think. He may be
brilliant, but there are times when I swear he's got no more sense than a little kid."
      I thanked Evelyn sincerely for standing up for me and then exited the building post-haste
before I had to explain the bad news to anyone else.
      Walking was strange, disorienting, with knees a-wobble and my eyesight seemingly
floating and jarring out of synch with my footsteps. My brain felt like it was being jounced
about inside a large bowl of pudding--floating erratically and overly padded from reality.
      During the long walk home, I mulled the day's events over in my mind. It's over, I thought.
It ended miserably, but at least it's over. I relaxed and tried to let the long-overdue tears spring
forth, but nothing happened. They'd gone into retreat after the strangeness of Alper's lengthy
rant. Silently I cursed the man. After all the other unpleasantness, he'd managed to steal my
catharsis as well. Talk about a Miserable Experience that Ends Badly. This was the king of
      For the next hour or so I stared at the ceiling in my bedroom, blankets pulled up to my chin.
I didn't know what to do. I didn't know who to talk to, nor, for that matter, did I even want to
talk to anyone else. Trying to work was impossible. Concentration was impossible, but worst of
all I didn't trust myself to start something else for fear of screwing it up, too. It's a confidence-
shaking experience when the largest endeavor of your life comes crashing down around you,
      But eventually I got back out of bed and went to supper. Not that I was hungry, and I still
didn't feel like talking to anyone, but I had to do something. Food was too much of a reflex to
      Dave and Polly were in Dascomb at our usual table. I broke the news to them, while they
both insisted emphatically that I deserved full recognition for all my hard work, suggested
strongly that I talk to someone, and in general doubted the intelligence of the judges. I thanked
them for their encouragement, assured them I'd really been expecting it, and was just more than
happy to know I was going to graduate.
      Nearly identical conversations sprang up around me over the next few days with the
regularity of a Whack-a-Mole machine as I relayed the news to family and friends. Everyone
was stunned. "So it goes," I tried to reply. Lather, rinse, repeat.
      Dave was especially persistent in his objections, having gone through a similar experience
and having seen my struggles with the project. A couple of days later, when it had been
confirmed that he and Brandi would indeed graduate cum laude, he told me, "All I can see is,
Brandi and I must have done so poorly that for us to get even basic honors they must have
decided they couldn't give it to you." I took the left-handed compliment for the consolation it
was meant to be, even if it didn't make all that much sense. Dave meant well, I knew.
      After dinner I did my best to keep myself occupied. Work was still out of the question; I
just couldn't focus. So I took a long walk through the athletic fields as the sun set behind mount
Oberlin. My mind whirled and spat and finagled, and I let the complaints run their course.
Acceptance is a slow process requiring considerable persistence. After the northern escape, I
ventured southward, skirting the campus one block to the west, travelling through the residential
section. I passed by the houses of a few friends and knocked at their doors, but no one seemed to
be home. Out studying assiduously, most likely.
     Eventually I found myself outside the house with the Bonsai trees, just north of the
arboretum. How many times had I stopped to look at those trees? On many occasions I'd been
tempted to approach and knock on the front door to talk with the owner about the collection, to
give my thanks for that little touch of happiness I always found there. The whole back yard was
surrounded by a tall wooden fence, but the gate in back remained open year-round. Never had I
passed the place and not been able to enjoy the fascinating little trees: dead of winter with
icicles drooping from the covered fence or mid-summer heat wave, the show was always on.
Even at night, the yard was lit up enough to see each tree. There were many other yards scattered
throughout the western blocks of Oberlin that had carefully crafted and quite beautiful lawns,
but this place was my favorite. Something about the Bonsai trees held my attention that night.
The urgency of dire circumstances can cause a tormented soul to reach towards any escape,
maybe. For the first time, I really stared at the trees. Traced the contours of their branches,
admired the cloud-like puffs of needles, relished their aura of slow, patient growth. They were
the living embodiment of acceptance. They pulled me out of my mood, at least temporarily. A
world with something like that in it couldn't be all bad.
     A passing car snapped me out of my admiration and got me moving again, before someone
realized I'd been standing there for too long and called the police on me or did something
equally unpleasant.
     From there I walked a couple of laps around the Arb's larger pond, continuing to clear my
head. Feeling somewhat better, I strode east to Main Street and then northward into downtown
Oberlin. Smells from the Mandarin wafted out onto the sidewalk, reminding me that life still
had flavor. At the pay phones just north of the post office, a feminine figure in snug jeans
reminded me of other things the world had to offer.
     I gazed into the windows as I headed north. Annie's pizza place was slow, it being too late
for dinner and too early for late-night munchies. The Féve was booming, it being the perfect
time for coffee, tea, snacks, and studying. The hardware store was closed. Subway was nearly
empty, though to my experience it usually was. Too mainstream for most Obies, probably. Or
the piped-in country music kept us at bay. It's hard to say.
     At the corner of College and Main I turned west, towards most of campus. The Java Zone
on my left was doing as much business as the Féve had. To my right, park-like Tappan Square
sprawled off into the evening dimness. No one seemed to be moving across any of the many
sidewalks underneath the scattering of towering trees. It was late enough the squirrels had
ceased their scampering. At the center of the Square was a paved circle where most of the
sidewalk spokes converged. In that circle was a plaque dedicated to Charles M. Hall, '85.
[Footnote: Eighteen-eighty five, that is. The plaque informed me that Mr. Hall had donated the
money for all of the sidewalks in Tappan square. I'm halfway convinced the M stands for
Martin, which gives me a certain feeling of kinship for the guy. Our auditorium was also named
for him: Hall Auditorium. A strange name when you think about it, much like discovering a
"River Creek" or a "Lane Road."] I'd accidentally stepped on the memorial late the fall before.
Rumor claimed that anyone placing a foot on that plaque would be doomed to fail their next
exam, or they would never graduate from Oberlin. Joking with Dave one evening, I'd held my
foot over the bronze rectangle and made like I was going to stomp down. Don't ask my why.
There's no answer other than hubris or stupidity behind whatever any of us do to tempt the fates.
Before I could do more than call Dave's attention, my balance shifted and I stepped forward
directly onto the middle of the plaque. From Dave's point of view, it would have looked like I'd
intentionally made the move. I jumped back in horror, but it was too late.
      "What did you do that for?"
      "I didn't mean to. I was just joking around and fell over."
      "You'd better watch out for the curse, then. Catch out for the worse. Hey, that almost makes
      I agreed, all the while thinking to myself that maybe I'd better invest in a lucky rabbit's foot.
      My next exam came and went without event, so it was down to all or nothing. With my
worries over honors, difficulty in graduating seemed like it might become an issue. But as of
today I knew even that miracle would come to pass. I had confirmation from Alper's lips that I
wasn't in danger of being incomplete. All my other classes were going well--a mediocre
showing at finals would see me through.
      But maybe the plaque had wreaked its revenge after all. Honors was one long exam that had
been running the entire length of the year. There was my punishment: justice dealt and karma
      So be it. Better than spending another year in this hell-hole over ten credit hours.
      I continued west, studying the shops to my left as I passed them. The jewelry store, Ben
Franklin, Gibson's, the stairs to the Bead Shop, the Hunan, the clothing store, The Co-Op. I
entered the aluminum-framed glass doors for the second time that day, immediately turning left
and heading for the book section. Something light and entertaining from the fantasy or sci-fi
section was my tonic--H. Royden James would have called it "fluff" and maybe he was right,
but it certainly had its purposes. Like distracting me from the day's events. I picked a book
almost at random from the shelves. Taking my choice to the counter, I saw that a scraggly-
mustachioed student had replaced the woman from earlier. He wordlessly rang up my sale, took
my money, and returned to the Rolling Stone he'd been reading.
      Armed with the distraction of my new purchase, I went to Mudd Library and stretched out
on one of the couches. For the next couple of hours I read, distractedly at first and then with
more enthusiasm as I got into the story. Eventually new fears started to sneak in, and I set the
book aside. What would I tell my parents? What would I do next, both here and after
graduation? Did this change anything? How long would it be before I could spend time with
myself without cringing?
      At the very least, the timing of Alper's news was good. It was a Thursday, and I had no
assignments due the next day. All I had to do was show up for two early afternoon classes and
I'd have an entire weekend to regain my composure. If I'd had any work to do, I'd never have
gotten it done. Or if Alper had hit me on a Friday, it would have ruined half of my weekend. All
of this was unintentional, I was sure, but as a rationalization it gave me something to be thankful
for, so I took it.
      It was nearing ten; time to go home. A weighty mental and physical exhaustion settled on
me as I stood. Some sleep would be nice.
      Refreshed by its break from the day's concerns, my mind began to tackle them anew as I
walked home. It felt as if my worrying reflex needed to make up for lost time. By the time I'd
found my way home, all prospects looked bleak again. What a mess! How did I get in such a
bad spot? Why didn't someone warn me I was going wrong? All right, I suppose Alper had. So
why didn't I listen? If they could give me credit for independent research as a substitute, why
didn't he suggest I back out of the program months ago? Why didn't I express my doubts? Why
did I have to sign up in the first place? What a horrible ending to a terrible waste of time!
      At the house, I went straight to my bedroom. Ish's light was on--now there was the last
person I'd want to talk to on a day like today. I dumped the book on the night stand and emptied
out my pockets. There was the piece of paper I'd scribbled on in the bookstore. Fuck, fuck, fuck,
fuck, I thought to myself. How appropriate. And then there was the note from Alper.
      Please see me immediately.
          -K. Alper
      What a jerk. What a horrible day. I could still hear him reassuring me, "It's not the end of
the world," still remember his words from the day the paper was due, "I hope this will be a
lesson to you ..."
      Long overdue, the tears finally welled up. I sat there on the bed, face in my hands, and let
them trace warm streaks down my face.
      "Hi, Dale. I wanted to ask you if ..." Ixthyaki's voice trailed off as I looked up, startled. He
was sanding in the doorway, holding his paper-recycling bin. "What's wrong, Dale?"
      Not Ish. Not now. Anyone but him. I couldn't let him see me like this. Wipe my eyes and
try to play it off, I told myself, but it was too late. The floodgates had been opened, and they
couldn't be shut again until the waters had drained.
      "Oh, God, Ish! I didn't get honors." It wasn't just my failure that overwhelmed me, it was
everything. But that's what came out. Even in that moment, I wasn't distraught at the lack of a
few Latin words on my diploma. It didn't matter at all that I was graduating normally rather than
with honors. That was insignificant. I was crying from frustration, feeling like I should have
received credit for the work, or perhaps that I shouldn't have bothered with the work if I wasn't
going to receive credit. It felt like I had been cheated out of my due, or cheated out of the life I
should have had, if I'd been smart enough to stay away. But more than anything, this failed plan
was just one easily stated example that symbolically indicated everything that was horribly
wrong with the pattern of my life.
      He stood there for a moment in silence. I waited for criticism, for advice on what I should
have done, for any hint of victory in his voice declaring that he'd beaten me at this game, too.
But all he offered me was heartfelt concern. "I'm so sorry, Dale. You worked so hard, too."
      That broke me completely. Even in this, he was a better man. Not only had I failed honors, I
knew this was the final match with Ixthyaki. I was done. He remained undefeated.
      Between gasping breaths I stammered, "Yeah, I know, it's just ... it's just ... awful ... Alper
was crying ... and I took the left door ... and then Alper, he said ... not original ... it's a lesson ...
and ... and ... he went on and on about insane ... and why he had to tell me ... and ... Texas
woman ... not end of world and ... and ..." I was sobbing too hard to continue.
      Ish came in and sat down next to me. "I'm really sorry, Dale. I'm so sorry." He put an arm
around my shoulders. And I took his comfort, and his calling me Dale, and all his consolations. I
knew he meant what he said, that he was sorry and that it'd be all right. And I threw my arms
around him and poured my incoherent soul out into his shoulder and it felt good.
      Eventually I calmed and lay back on my bed, sniffling and spent. At Ish's request, I
explained the whole story to him as well as I could: the written exam, the oral exam, the paper,
Alper's critique, my realizing just how miserable and pointless all my work really was, the
damage control, today's conversation with Alper, everything. I told him the terrible complete
truth about the experience, including the visions of a crying Alper and my decision to accept in
the first place, most of which I'd never shared with another soul. There was nothing to hide
anymore; he'd won. Ish just listened quietly, asking only the occasional gentle question. At the
end he offered his consolation and nonjudgemental wisdom. I accepted it all, because I needed
it, and because I knew it was heartfelt and true.
      It was the best Ish had to offer--and that was the best offer anyone could ever get.
      For perhaps the first time ever, I ungrudgingly accepted a gift from Ixthyaki. All it cost me
was my dignity, my composure, and the lock to the dark recesses of my soul. Even as I accepted
his comfort I knew I would not be able to speak to him again without shameful memories of this
night flooding into my mind. But for now I was too exhausted to care, too much in need of
reassuring company to make any objections. And tomorrow ... tomorrow the game was over. I'd
accept defeat and slink away to pick up the pieces. Take my intended place in the pecking order.
For now, I could let the man be good to me.
      "I was just about to make some tea. Would you like some?"
      "Sure," I sniffed, wiping my eyes for the umpteenth time.
      Ish snagged a tissue from my desk and offered it to me.
      "Thanks," I said.
      "You're welcome, Dale. Green tea or mint?"
      "Mint, please."
      "Coming right up." He seemed almost to bow slightly before he left.
      It seemed like a change had come over Ish as well, as if he knew I'd given up the struggle.
The fight had gone out of him as well. He was simpler, more straightforward, and happily
accommodating. In the few minutes while the water heated he popped in four times to see how I
was doing and to ask if I wanted milk, or sugar, would I be interested in some cheese and
crackers, too, and would I prefer to partake of the feast in the kitchen or my bedroom? He put on
music, something classical and perfect. The Ode to Joy, I suspect. Somehow, it was easy just to
let him take care of me.
      At first I thought it was all in my perception, something that had always been there and I'd
just missed it until now. That may have been part of it. But when he brought in the tray with tea
and snacks, his words to me were "Here you go, Martin." Martin! He must have known. If not
all along, then for a while at least, and if not everything, at least part of my story. And the
moment I gave up, he gave in to every demand I never made. He hasn't called me Dale since.
      We haven't spoken much since that day, what with finals and commencement and the
associated craziness. But that evening he pulled up a chair and we talked for hours. We
discussed anything and everything like old friends catching up after years apart. What we'd been
up to lately, plans for the future, eventual hopes and dreams. Family, friends, books, music,
love. I told him all about Ginevra, he told me about his plans to propose to Mirriam. I genuinely
wished them well, not that they needed my meager wishes.
      Those few hours with Ish were like no other, before or since. As I expected, some of my old
habits returned the next morning, on a much milder level. I still have trouble looking him in he
eye without blushing about that night. But a peace has been established, a stable and lasting one.

     That was just under a month ago. As for honors, I'm still not really recovered, still cringe
inside whenever I probe that wound with my thoughts. I'm taking Alper at his word: I don't have
to give up on philosophy if I don't want to. But I've also known since the very beginning that if
honors is any indication of the grad school experience, I'd rather eat glass than face further
education. Maybe someday I'll feel like getting more schooling. Will it be in philosophy?
Probably not. Do I still like the subject? Sure. Though from the far side of the experience it's not
nearly as good for me as I'd assumed going in. Would I do it again? Philosophy, yes. Honors, no
way in hell. That's the last time in my life I volunteer for something solely because it seems like
it'll be good for me. "Good for you" just isn't a motivator. It's certainly not inspiring, fulfilling,
or all that compelling.
       So that's part of the reason the future isn't so clear. What to do? Where to go? How to find a
job? All good questions with no answers. What other skills can I fall back on? Will I ever be
suited for anything more academic than running a cash register or a paint roller? My old and
unfulfilled dream of creative writing whispers to me through the mists of memory. Be a starving
artist? Get a day job and live with the parents until something takes off? Is it practical? Is it
possible? Is it bearable? Stay here in Oberlin? No way. It's too lonely and desolate already. More
time here, living in the middle of all these memories, it would be ugly.
       What lies ahead? I don't know, but it looks dark and foreboding. What can I do? Again, I
don't know. But in comparison to the hell I've just been through, it can't be all that bad, I
suppose. Working on honors, living with Ish. Failing at one and losing completely to the other
has left me in shambles. That alone would have been bad enough, but that isn't the half of it.
                                Chapter the Eighth: Ginevra
      She had eyes that could break a man into a thousand pieces ... and then pull him together
again just so he could take another look. Deep blue liquid pools larger than they had any right to
be. By day they were vibrant, seemingly lit by some mystical source of their own. At night they
grew smoky and alluring, grey with a hint of blue. If the light caught them just right they would
shimmer electric aqua, and I could feel a bolt shoot from her eyes through mine, and from there
into my brain to pass tinglingly through the entire length of my body. In the shadowless evening,
by the light of the dimming dusk, her eyes softened to a warm lavender, streaked radially and
glittering like faceted gemstones.
      I fantasized often about looking deep into those eyes and pouring out the depths of my
heart. Somehow the emotion I felt would change and complete something crucial within her,
win her over. And then I could tell her all those things I've had stored inside me for so long, like
the way I worshipped her soul-shattering eyes. Before she said anything in reply I would know
I'd touched her by the way her eyes widened and her pupils dilated and azure beams pierced me,
left me shuddering. "Yeah, like that," I'd whisper, and they'd do it again. Her eyebrows would
lift in a helpless gesture that indicated the further softening of her heart, coincident with the
complete melting of my own. I'd take her hand then, across the table, and soak in that gaze for as
long as I could bear, until my vision blurred through a window of tears. Even just writing this I
have to pause for a moment to rest my head in my hands.
      It's pitiful.
      Maybe not at first glance. Maybe it comes off as incredibly sweet. Maybe it sounds
wonderful. If Ginevra couldn't see it, then she doesn't deserve me--I've heard it from my friends
aplenty. Even casual acquaintances who were in the know. They all say that. But the truth is I
don't care what anyone else thinks about the situation: I know for a fact that she does indeed
deserve me, because she's the most wonderful woman I know, have ever known. And I know
that I deserve her, that I want her, and I know how wonderful I am, and how astoundingly
amazing everything could be if one of us were on just a slightly different wavelength. But it ain't
the way it worked out, and here I sit, mulling it all over in my head and breaking my heart one
more time.
      That's why I call it pitiful.
      Me, I'm pitiful for being so miserable. The whole damn world's pitiful for working out so
badly, for falling short of its potential, for not resolving neatly like TV teaches us it will. It's an
unfuckingbelievable pity that we can dream up an image that seems so precious and then we still
end up with so much muck.
      Life, it ain't so beautiful. You get a distraction here, an illusion there, a couple bits of luck
now and again. But when it's important, when it really means something, you get yet another
Miserable Experience that Ends Badly.

     All right, maybe I should back up a little. It ended badly, yes. And at points it was outright
miserable, sure. Mostly self-inflicted misery, I have to admit. But the woman was my friend--
one of the best of them--for four years, and there were plenty of good times as well. There are
many joys for which I owe her a great debt. There are plenty of crazy stories, fond memories.
Hell, simply for introducing me to James Joyce I'd thank the woman a thousand times over.
    Overheard: "It happened right next to The Iron Scaffold That Was Never as Much Fun as It

      Ginevra plopped down in the vacant chair across from me in Langston Commons,
Stevenson Dining Hall, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio, USA, the world, the solar system, the
Milky Way, the local cluster, the universe, the Void.
      "Hey, Martin," she said. "I've got a spoon for you!"
      "Pose no threat!"
      "Throws no pet? That's pretty good! I had one the other day. Whale fishing is fail wishing."
      "Yeah, I like that one because it's so absurd. I mean, how do you fail at wishing?"
      Grinning mischievously, Ginevra proceeded to show me. "It's a Moby Dick reference, you
know. Ahab wants revenge, so he goes whale fishing, but in the end his ship is destroyed, so his
wishing has failed. It's perfect!"
      "Ginevra, you know you're brilliant, don't you?"
      "Naturally, dahling," she said with the utmost breeding and restraint, before breaking into a
girlish giggle.
      "So what did you do last night?"
      "Oh, I went to a party on East Lorain. I had the best time, too. I spent the entire night sitting
in the corner talking to a guy I'd never met before. He just sat down and introduced himself, and
we talked for hours. Psychology, science, history, favorite books, you know. He's from the east,
and he'd spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, so we talked about that, too. The next thing I knew
it was three-thirty in the morning, so I went home to bed."
      "Sounds like fun."
      "Yeah, it was really cool. You know, it's like sometimes you just stand around and get
drunk and talk to the friends you came with, and other times everyone's really friendly, and you
have a blast with total strangers. It's funny. But I love it when it works out that way."
      All I said was, "That's great."
      What I didn't say was, "You do know you broke his heart, right? You know when you left
him last night, he was crushed. You know that right now he's pining away in his room or
spilling his guts to his friends about the evening, wondering what the hell went wrong. I mean,
there she is, the most attractive woman in the room, sitting by herself in a corner, looking bored
and sweet and available, so he summons up every ounce of courage he has and plops himself
down beside her. To his amazement, she doesn't tell him to go away. Instead, she's friendly. She
talks to him. And she keeps talking to him. For hours! The entire night goes by, and she has
been captivated exclusively by him. She didn't run off to hang out with her friends. She didn't
call it a night at midnight or one or two, or even three. He was sure she was into him. Maybe
she'd even go home with him, that's how amazing the connection was. He was sure of it. Forget
all the angst and frustration and the general complaint that relationships are screwy at Oberlin,
maybe sometimes love's just sitting there waiting for you. And then she just disappears. 'Oops,'
she says. 'It's time for bed. Nice talking to ya, seeya later. Bye.' Just like that, she's gone. Poof.
And all he's got are some beer-clouded memories. He'll be jerking off for a week; he'll be
wondering for a month. Maybe he'll see her again sometime in the mail room next spring, and if
he's got the balls he'll run up and say, 'Oh my gosh, hi, how are you?' but even if he does, how
likely is it she'll actually remember him, let alone feel like talking to the guy?"
      Naturally, I said none of that. Tearing into Ginevra wouldn't accomplish anything except
hurt her feelings. Instead, I just got a little grumpy. [Footnote: Because, obviously, we all know
it's much better to exhibit mysterious hostility to our friends than to explain our differences of
opinion and work things out. It's in the unpublished Martin Dalí's Guidebook to Living, rule
number 142.]
      Ginevra sensed none of my negativity, which was just as well. She was on her own
emotional high, it seemed. She dug something out of her backpack. Smiling like a cheshire cat
that swallowed tweety bird, she handed me two typewritten sheets. "Martin, you should read
      Grumpiness and wary skepticism battled against love and slowly gave ground. I accepted
the pages tentatively and perused the first lines:
      "What follows is the world's first specifically documented trialogue. Tonight's presentator,
Hubert Franklin Carothers, will initiate the seen."
      "The seen? Presentator? What is this?"
      "Just read it. It's a little free-form. Seen is a pun for scene, but it's visible, so it's seen, too.
Look for examples like that. It's oozing with 'em. You'll love it."
      Mind properly attuned and curious, I scanned a few more lines.
      "HFC: Ahead resides the body of ein bugaboo of immense contortions. Oftin leftish field
repeats the frequent presence of anotha such boo-like buggas. Behind, be there a bee, befouled,
besotted, besmirched, bemused, angrily beyouthtiful, grimacing with a beesultory beemeaner."
      I arched an eyebrow. My face couldn't seem to decide whether to look confused or to smile.
"What is this? Did you write it?"
      "Yeah," Ginevra said. "It's sort of a tribute to James Joyce. Finnegans Wake in particular.
Just read the darn thing. I think you of all people will appreciate it."
      There's a scene in The Doors where Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison tempts his wife with a
square of acid. Just try it, he cajoles. Have some, he whispers coaxingly. Coerced, she sticks out
her tongue, and with a quick dab she's off on a twelve-hour journey that leaves the world subtly
changed in retrospect. Thinking back on that moment with Ginevra, I get the same sort of
feeling. Perhaps more positive. But with her simple coaching, "Here, take this," I set off on a
journey unlike any other I'd experienced before. From the top, I read:

     What follows is the world's first specifically documented trialogue. Tonight's presentator,
Hubert Franklin Carothers, will initiate the seen.
     HFC: Ahead resides the body of ein bugaboo of immense contortions. Oftin leftish field
repeats the frequent presence of anotha such boo-like buggas. Behind, be there a bee, befouled,
besotted, besmirched, bemused, angrily beyouthtiful, grimacing with a beesultory beemeaner.
Wright, there is a whale of an empty space, where Jonah once resood but nothing there now
resinds. To reiterate: Bugaboo that way, bugaboo that way, bee that way, nothing that way. This
sets the critical surroundings to this quite uncomplaintscent scene, to be mnemonicized through
the functionable utterance of the phrase, 'bugaboo, bugaboo, bee, bare.'
     Just so.
     The plodding of the narrative begins as thus; there be elderly youths of gargantuan stature,
for a Lilliputian. Three they are in number, skilled they are in letters, mixed they are in color,
impeccable they are in taste. In name they be Charmesh, Frans, and Heng Li; in blame they be
innocent; in game they be fools and all the same there's a joker among the bunch. They speak in
hussshed tones of the future of mankind as they will not know it. For they do knot now of the
urgent accelerated tying together of centripetal events that will leave them old and mustified.
They do not also know that my trappers need climmed, nor have the breadmice devoured the
      Bugaboo, bugaboo, bee, bear. Just so.
      Rise, curtain, and live again, in this shadow of the valley of death. I shall feel no evil. I will
permit it to pass over me, as the shepherd's grace passes over the paschal lamb to the lord before
dinnertime. Enter Frans. Exit Frans. Enter Charmesh. Heng Li levitates downwards from
ceiling, gives Charmesh bunny ears, floats off stage left. Enter Frans. Charmesh and Frans wave,
smile, shake hands and head off in opposite directions. Both pause halfway, smack their
foreheads, turn about and stride purposefully in the other direction, passing each other without
acknowledgement. Exit Frans and Charmesh. Heng Li crawls out from underneath a large rock,
climbs said rock, fabricates a notebook from thin air. He crosses his legs in proper Zen style,
examines carefully a flower atop the rock, and begins to take Lotus notes.
      Frans and Charmesh enter side by side and pause before Heng Li.
      Says Frans: I do say, old chap, that we seem to be in quite the muddle, what?
      Charmesh: Whadda you means, we inna big mud hole? You slime, my home this is!
      Frans: A thousand partitions, old boy, I mean no fence. I was merely trying to say we seem
to have missed our appointment with the lovely young Madame Dora. I wander, where could
she be?
      Charmesh: Oh. Why didn'a you just saya so in da forest pace? I been walkin true these
woods, I swear it musta been tree hours, and I still can'ta finda one-a Dora.
      Frans: (Chuckles.) I must say, I quite adore her, too. (Sighs.) In fact, one might say I'm in
love. Did you know she is named after the most beautiful woman the world has ever seen: Dora
Helen Tiquity Jones. The name Tiquity, by the way, comes from her grandfather's sister. Surely
Dora must rival the beauty of her namesake of Great Aunt Tiquity, if not surpass her. In these
bland and banal days of the present, Dora shines like a diamond among hamsters. While she is
brilliant, they are dull brown. While she is pure and bright, they are fat and furry and squeak.
      Heng Li: How were they to know the tuna casserole was poisoned?
      Frans: Exactly my point! Er, what?
      Charmesh: Paya heem no mind. Unfortunate wretch. I have cosst heem and cosst heem, and
still he makea no cents. Put no stock in what he say.

     I was awestruck. Nothing like that had ever crossed my path. Puns, sure. Double entendres,
of course. But so many, all mixed together on one page, and most of it making a certain sort of
sense even while none of it really seemed remotely explicable. It was crazy. It made my brain
feel good. Of course I loved it, and I told Ginevra so.
     "Thanks," she said, beaming. "I thought you might."
     "It's wonderful. It's strange ... in a very good way. You do know you're brilliant, don't you?"
Ginevra beamed. "This Joyce guy, he writes like your story?"
     "Sorta. Finnegans Wake is a little like that, but it's much more intense. It's not even really
English. He uses all kinds of foreign words--even Swahili. It's full of puns, but it doesn't even
make any sense it's so crazy, you know? No one really understands it."
     The challenge tantalized me. An indecipherable book, eh? Sure, maybe it was difficult, but
I was confident a little work would make it intelligible. I'd read some strange and disjointed
stories before, modern fiction. No stuffy old literature was going to stump me. Visions of
lengthier puns and triple entendres came to mind. Maybe some incomplete sentences and
unidentified speakers. Of course it would make sense; just give me a little time with the book,
and I'd be able to explain everything.
     "Oh, come on. It can't really be that bad."
     "It really is. And it's huge. Six hundred pages of the densest literature you'll ever set eyes
on. Even if it doesn't make any sense, it's really cool, though, and his other stuff is great. They're
teaching a class on Joyce next semester. I'm going to take it."
     Such was my lack of imagination, so limited was my comprehension of what she was trying
to warn me, I remained convinced that with a little work I'd be able to crack the Joyce code. This
was a challenge being offered me, and no way was I going to back down.
     "You really like this guy's writing?"
     "Yeah. He's brilliant. All of his stuff is amazing."
     "All right, I'm in. I'll take the class, too."

    Overheard: "Life's too complimicated."

      I had a lot to learn about literature and just how limited was my exposure to it. It never
would have occurred to me that someone might write a book that wasn't meant to be understood.
But four months later I opened my book to the first assignment from the Wake and read:
      "Yet may we not see still the brontoicthyan form outlined a-slumbered, even in our own
nighttime by the sedge of the troutling stream that Bronto loved and Brunto has a lean on. Hic
cubat edilis. Apud libertinam parvulam. Whatif she be in flags or flitters, reekierags or
sundyechoises, with a mint of mines or a beggar a pinnyweight. Arrah, sure, we all love little
Anny Ruiny, or, we mean to say, lovelittle Anna Rayiny, when unda her brella, mid piddle med
puddle, she ninnygoes nannygoes nancing by. Yoh! Brontolone slaaps, yoh snoores ..." [Wake,
      I was shocked. No way! I flipped through the book.
      "when his kettle became a hearthsculdus our thorstyites set their lymphyamphyre; his year-
letter concocted by masterhands of assays ..." [p. 137]
      "... millions of moods used up slanguage tun times as words as the penmakers used out in
sinscript with such hesitancy by your celebrated brother--excuse me not mentioningahem?" [p.
      No way. No fucking way. It really wasn't English. It wasn't anything else, either. It was just
Joyce. Understand? Interpret? I could barely get through a sentence without losing track of the
one before. I didn't recognize half the words. But still, something made me love it anyway.
      It is the sign of an enlightened soul, I tend to believe, if one can find it in one's heart to
appreciate even in the absence of understanding. It may not be a particularly common human
trait, but as far as I can tell little harm can come of it, and much good. Art, in particular, strikes
me this way. "I don't get it, but I like it!" is a common response from me.
      I apply the same philosophy and humor to statements taken out of context. There are some
truly delightful things to be heard if you just pay enough attention.
     "After a while you just snap anyway, so it doesn't really matter." The statement floated
across the crowded snack bar one afternoon. Was he discussing Oberlin life? Relationships?
Some difficult class he shared with a friend? Who knows. All I know is, it made me laugh until
I nearly choked on my delicious chewy snack bar cookie.
     On another occasion, passing through the physics building to drop off my astronomy
homework, I heard a professor's voice echoing from the classroom, "Physics is like sex. Sure,
there are practical results sometimes, but that's not why we do it." That was good enough an
argument to convince me to sign up for the Musical Acoustics class the next semester. No other
professor had ever been brash enough to suggest in my presence that his chosen subject could
possibly be equivalent to sex. That kind of enthusiasm was convincing. [Footnote: It may be
true of other subjects, I've just never heard anyone make the claim. Literature, in particular
strikes me as a potential candidate. I've found I'm capable of going years without sex, but I can't
go a week without picking up a book or I start to get really, really edgy. How's that for strange
     Oberlin happens to have an excellent environment in which to eavesdrop on conversations.
It may be considered poor manners, but damn if it isn't educational. And entertaining. The
College, as I'm sure I've both mentioned and demonstrated thoroughly, is a place of dialogue.
Conversations, convocations, meetings, protests, rallies, demonstrations, classes. Written
dialogue, too: papers and pamphlets and letters to the editor. Email. Instant messaging.
Discussion boards, newsgroups. Pose a problem and the preferred panacea is palaver. Talk, that
is. Discussing, shouting, whispering, arguing, cajoling, mocking, complaining, ranting, venting,
confessing, sharing, elucidating, extrapolating, philosophizing, extemporizing, dramatizing,
simplifying, summarizing, paper-writing, essay distributing. It was the spirit of the place, the
way business was done.
     With all that dialogue going on, any innocent passerby is bound to intercept juicy tidbits.
What others do with it is their choice: Me, I preferred to collect the bits and laugh my ass off.

     Overheard: A man and a woman passed me as I headed to Stevenson for Saturday lunch.
Apparently a couple, as I passed the man said to the woman, "No, honey, the cow was the
     I kid you not. That's what he said. Why, I can't even imagine. What does it mean? It's
beyond me. Did he mean organism? Who knows. Did he say something else and I misheard?
Perhaps, but I'd swear he didn't. Orgasm is one of those loaded words that the psyche of a lonely
young man can pick out unmistakably under any conditions. Crowds, music, sleep, lightning
striking at a thousand paces, it doesn't matter. When you hear the o-word, you know it. Perhaps
it was the punch line to some obscure joke. To this day, I wonder. Most likely I always will, but-

     But it's not the only thing I wonder about. I'll always wonder how Ginevra Montaigne could
be so perfect for me, and yet I wasn't so perfect for her. I'll always wonder how she could love
Brent, why she couldn't love me instead. And most assuredly, I will wonder till the day I die
what might have happened had we actually kissed that night in March of my sophomore year.
     Yeah, we almost kissed once. Our lips hovered mere inches apart, close enough that I could
feel on my face the heat radiating from her skin, feel the puff of her breath tickle my lips. That
kiss could have changed everything. For a brief twenty-four hours, she and Brent were broken
up, and in the short time I actually knew about it, I nearly managed to receive the blessed grace
of her lips. Naturally, it fell apart because I blew it. Nothing unusual about that. It does come as
some small comfort that everything failed because I was trying to do the right thing. To be more
candid, I should say it fell apart when I found myself confused and unable to decide between the
right thing and the act that would have felt righter than anything. But no choice is still a choice,
or so they say. The choice was made, and now I'm left with my regrets.
     Of course circumstances were more likely to blow up in my face than provide either of us
lasting happiness. Initially I could say this only as a sour-grapes consolation, but now I'm
beginning to recognize it really is true. The doom was there from the beginning. It was in the
stars: my t's were crossed, her i's were dotted, and never the twain shall meet. Sometimes I can
almost feel some fundamental flaw of the universe expressed through this simple truth. It's as if
something small and subtle broke long ago, and it has created a blazing path of pain and
frustration and mangled fate that leaves us all smoking and maimed and writhing in the ruin,
     And it all started with a knock on my door. It was a Thursday evening, sometime after
supper and the Simpsons, but nowhere near bonus meal time. Actually, bonus meal didn't exist
my sophomore year--at least I think it was a junior year invention. History's already blurring in
my mind. In any case, I was doing some reading. Philosophy. Hegel, I think. I had some nice
reading music on in the background. Something classical. Not necessarily mellow, but
something that didn't have any words to distract me. Distractions are not what one needs when
reading philosophy, particularly Hegel. All the same, after a few hours of the dense material the
distraction of a knock on the door was welcome.
     I was in my room in East, the divided double that I shared with Ish. He was at the library, so
I got up to answer the door. "Hang on!" I called out as I clambered out of bed and wended across
my room, through the doorway to Ish's half of the room, and then over to the door that lead to
the outside hallway. Out of the goodness of his heart, Ish had volunteered to take the outside
half of the room and let me have the more private inner room. I might have argued with him, but
he had arrived the day before I did and had already unpacked and settled in by the time I got
there. To the utmost of my ability, I tried to coerce him into trading at the beginning of the
spring semester, so that we each had an equal amount of time in the lesser half, but Ish refused.
By now we all know what happens when I pit myself against my stainless-steel roommate. It
galled me to let him win in the unspoken war of generosity, but secretly I was also relieved,
because I preferred the inner room and would have hated to give it up. I loved being able to shut
the door and know the space was my own. Ish didn't seem to care about or need privacy. Me, I
dreamed of late-night liaisons and drowsy mornings spent lazily untwining my limbs from that
of some lovely mystery woman. Had I possessed the outer room, the mere thought of Ish
wandering blandly through such a scene on the way to an early breakfast would have killed my
ability to even fantasize about such things. It turned out fantasy would be my only company
through that long and lonely year, but at least I had that.
     When I opened the door and saw Ginevra, it was immediately clear that something was
wrong. Her eyes were red and puffy, as if she'd been crying. The soul-shattering irises were
dark, almost inky black with just a trace of indigo. She wasn't wearing her usual winter coat--
just a blue sweater. I could see flecks of snow still melting on her shoulders, drops of dew
forming in her raven hair. Clearly she'd just walked across the frigid campus dressed like that,
and that spoke volumes. Ginevra was always thoroughly bundled--usually she was the one
reprimanding the rest of the crowd to dress warmly, until somebody would call her mom and
she'd clap her mouth shut in a silent but suggestive sulk.
     "Hey, Martin, can I come in?" she asked hoarsely.
     "Yeah, sure, what's wrong?"
     She opened her mouth, shook her head. Ginevra stumbled past me into my room, taking a
seat on my bed. I trailed her and sat down at my desk. She seemed to gather herself, and with
apparent great effort relayed to me something both horrible and wonderful.
     "He cheated on me."
     "Brent. He cheated on me."
     "Oh shit!"
     "I mean, what happened? Well no, not what happened. What, ah, are you going to, uh ... I
mean, how did you find out? If you even want to talk about it. Sorry, it's just that I don't really
know what to say, so-"
     "So why don't I just let you tell me whatever you feel like telling me?"
     Ginevra took a deep, shuddering breath. "Okay. He called me this afternoon. He said he had
something to tell me. Important, you know? It was a confession, he said. He wanted to come
clean. He'd been dating another woman. For months! All last fall, this winter, too. They broke
up, he said. He broke up with her. Because he realized that he wants me. He said he was lonely.
Doesn't he think I'm lonely, too? You don't see me sleeping with anyone else. He says he's not
anymore either, wishes he never had. But I don't know. I don't know what to think. What do I do
Martin? I don't even know if I can trust him. I don't know if I want to. I mean, what the hell was
he doing, you know? And then I even saw him over the holidays and I didn't even notice
anything different and the whole time he was hiding this from me. Maybe I should have let him
transfer. But how could he do this to me? How could he do this to us?"
     "Ginevra, I don't know what to say." That didn't seem to be enough, but I was at a loss for
words. "Shit."
     "I'm really sorry that this happened to you."
     "Yeah, me too. But thanks."
     "How did you leave things with Brent?"
     "I told him I needed some time to think. Let things sink in, you know. I've been staring at a
spot on the wall for hours. I had to get out, so I came to see you. I'm sorry to dump all this on
     "Don't be. I'm happy to listen. I just wish I could help more than that. Why don't you go
over it again, just to make sure I've got everything straight."
     We went through things a few times, actually, before I felt I understood the situation.
Ginevra and Brent had spent two weeks together at the end of the summer, right before classes
started. It was the longest they'd had together in more than two years, since the end of high
school. When Brent returned to college, he found himself particularly lonely and strenuously
wishing for a relationship that involved seeing his partner more than twice a year. He tried to
talk Ginevra into transferring to UT-Austin, but she knew she'd hate it there. To his credit, he
then offered to transfer to Oberlin, but Ginevra talked him out of it. Apparently he had a full ride
scholarship there. She wasn't going to let him throw it away just to be close to her. At $25,000
per year, Oberlin was infinitely more expensive than a free ride.
     Thwarted and lonely, Brent dropped the subject and picked up a local gal. Apparently
someone who looked like Ginevra, reminded him of her. They even had similar names--Jennifer
and Ginevra. His pet names for them were Jenny and Ginny. Brent got by with his Ginevra
substitute all through the fall. But he and Ginevra saw each other over Christmas, and once he
got back to Texas for spring semester he began to realize that relations with his local substitute
weren't anywhere close to what he and Ginevra had. After another month of carnal comfort,
Brent called it off with Jennifer. Feeling guilty for what he'd done, he waited through another
month of agonizing before he realized he had to come clean.
     "When you were on the phone, did you, ah, break up with him?" I asked when Ginevra
grew quiet again.
     "No. It crossed my mind. But I knew he'd argue with me more if I did, and I needed to get
off the phone."
     "So what are you going to do?"
     "I don't know. I still don't know what to think. It doesn't even seem real, you know?"
     "Sure. While you're letting it sink in, can I distract you for a bit? Maybe a song, or a dance,
or some juggling? I can recite Shakespeare! 'Would fardles bear to see thee to a nunnery, all
slings and arrows of outrageous fortune on a horse, a horse, and merrily in Padua?'" Ginevra
laughed weakly, if confusedly. It seemed healthy. "Perhaps the lady could use a drink or five?
Let's see. You don't like tequila. Otherwise, all I have is vodka. A screwdriver, perhaps?"
     "Um, sure, that sounds nice."
     I dug out some plastic cups from the cabinet, vodka and orange juice from the miniature
fridge Ish so generously shared with me. Silently I sent a brief note of thanks to the guy. I had a
sneaking suspicion that Ginevra, having thoroughly vented her concerns, would soon want some
time alone. But I hate to see a friend in distress leave me with things unsettled. I figured the
drink might help her calm down and mull things over slowly with a readily available second
     That's what I like to think, at least. It makes sense and sounds good on paper. But in
moments of extreme candor I also recognize that my motives weren't entirely pure. Ginevra was
at a point where she could conceivably do anything. She had good reason to lash out at her
boyfriend, even if she did want to remain involved with him. She'd confessed loneliness. If ever
there was a time for her to discover the love for me she'd thus far hidden even from herself, this
was that time. A drink seemed the most likely way to encourage her to stay around.
     I'm not proud of it, but that's part of the truth. I was lonely and lovestruck and desperate,
and for the first time in a year and a half the woman was potentially available. I couldn't just let
the opportunity slide by, couldn't trust that she'd make a clean break with Brent and then see me
with all new eyes in another day or week or month. I knew Brent was a jerk. It was clear that he
didn't understand or appreciate or deserve the woman I loved. The sooner Ginevra got over him,
the better for everybody involved. If by being a catalyst I made the situation better for all three
of us, hell, it's practically community service. They'd all see it that way eventually. In the
meantime, my actions might seem a bit devious, but love--exclusively love--lay at their root.
     If there is a practical use for philosophy, it may just be its ability to help you rationalize
your way from being a total slime to being a saint. Not a small skill, by any means.
      Humming tunelessly, I poured a couple of stiff drinks for the two of us. Ginevra spoke
more of Brent: her shock, her dismay, her broken trust. They'd been dating for five whole years,
she said. Since their sophomore year in high school, back in Philadelphia. She circled the same
ground frequently. Outrage, the phone call, not knowing what to do. I said very little. Just
nodded and grunted and threw out an occasional supportive affirmation or denial. Let her work
it out for herself. It was so obvious to me that he'd blown his chance, that he couldn't be trusted
any further, that with time enough she'd see the same thing and end it all. Then I could sweep
her off her feet and make her deliriously happy in all the ways he never could. Ginevra's anger
seemed to increase in proportion with the amount of screwdriver she consumed. How could he
possibly expect her to forgive something like that? What the hell was he thinking? How pitiful
did he think she was, that she'd accept anything he did and let him get away with it?
      I just let her run with it. Any minute now she was going to call him up and end it. Then
she'd hang up, turn around, and look at me with those enormous expressive blue eyes, golden
rims shining with newly discovered love, and we could fall into each other's arms for an eternity
of happiness.
      Well, it sounded good to me.
      Instead she put down her empty glass and stood up. "I think I need to be alone for a while,"
she said, to my complete surprise.
      "What? I mean, are you sure? Are you okay?"
      "Yeah, I'm sure. And no, I'm not okay. That's why I need some time alone." She moved to
the door, turned the handle.
      "Wait!" I said.
      She stopped in the doorway, waiting. My opportunity was trickling away, but I didn't have
any idea what might stop her. Don't go? I love you? Too soon, too dramatic.
      "What?" Ginevra asked, impatiently.
      "It's just that, uh, I mean, give me a call later and let me know how things are going, okay?
You don't deserve to be in a mess like this, and I'm going to worry about you the whole time
you're out there wandering by yourself."
      Her glare softened. Almost--not quite, but almost--a hint of a smile showed itself on her
face. She let go the door and came back to embrace me. Muffled by my shoulder, she said,
"Aww, Martin, you're so sweet. Thank you so much for listening to me. You've really helped.
Tons! I couldn't have asked for a better listener. I just need some time to think things out on my
      She let go of me, drifting back towards the door. I wasn't ready to lose her. "Are you sure
you don't want another drink? A good drunk might put things in perspective. There's plenty of
time later to do all kinds of gloomy thinking."
      "No, but thanks. I'll have to take a rain check. I just need some time alone. I'm not going to
be good company. Thanks for everything, though."
      And with that, she was gone. The objection that she was always good company died on my
lips, useless. Two minutes later I started to run after her again, to offer something warm to wear
over her sweater. Fuck it, I thought. Who knew where she was by now? I couldn't tell if I was
more upset over her pain or my lost opportunity. Half and half, maybe. Either way, the night's
studying was ruined. I waited quietly in the room for her to call, to let me know she was okay.
No call came, but I didn't want to call her myself. She'd contact me when she was ready, I knew.
Until then, my mind was full of nightmarish possibilities. She forgave him. She refused to
forgive him but stayed with him out of some misguided desire to punish or fear to leave. She
broke up with him and found comfort in the arms of another man. Distraught, she committed
suicide in the athletic fields by using the splintered end of a lacrosse stick. I couldn't focus,
couldn't read or work or use the phone for fear of missing a call. Even going to the bathroom
was a horrible risk. Maybe she'd call while I was out, and I would miss the opportunity to save
her from something self-destructive. Even worse, I might miss the opportunity to win her love.
Both of those urges warred within me: save Ginevra and earn her love. I would have been happy
to do either, but I was thwarted on both accounts by her unwillingness to play along with my
     So I waited throughout the night, disgruntled and impotent in my room.
     My attention the next day was blown, too. It was a Friday, and not too difficult, so I
muddled through, mostly focused on my worries about Ginevra. She didn't show up at lunch. On
other days this would not have been unusual, but under the circumstances I took it to have the
direst of implications. I tried calling her soon after lunch, and when nobody answered I stopped
by at the end of my 1:30 class. She either wasn't there or she wasn't opening the door. Later it
occurred to me that she had an afternoon class or two, and that I probably wouldn't have found
her at home anyway. But that wasn't until much later, after all the worrying had already tossed
and churned in my stomach for hours.
     When I didn't see Ginevra at supper, I began to worry all over again. It made me snippy and
withdrawn. Leon and Manny mostly ignored my silence; they were talking excitedly about the
concert that evening in Finney Chapel. They seemed to take it for granted that I was coming
along. Well, I had purchased a ticket with them earlier in the week, and until the previous
evening I had been as excited as they, so their assumptions were not unfounded. But now I didn't
want to do anything that might take me away from Ginevra. What if she needed me? What if she
wanted me? I couldn't share my concerns with my fellows. Neither of them seemed to know
anything about her recent dilemma, and I didn't want to spread gossip about the news. So I sat in
silent conflict.
     After dinner, I looped by Ginevra's room to see if I could find her. Leon and Manny had
retired to Leon's house to smoke up before the show, still several hours away. They were
surprised when I declined, but I pled a heavy load of reading and they let me go without too
much fuss.
     To my surprise, Ginevra answered the door when I knocked.
     "Hey, Martin." She stood in the doorway, the portal only half open and she leaning against
the frame. She didn't ask me in.
     "Hey! How are you doing?"
     "Okay. Not so good, really. As good as can be expected, you know."
     "I've been trying to track you down all day. I was a little worried when you didn't call last
     "Oh, I'm sorry about that. Brent called again when I got home, and we argued for a long
time. When it was over, it was really late and I just went to sleep. I've been running around in a
daze all day. I went to all my classes, but I didn't really learn anything. I've spent the rest of the
time in the library, sorta doodling. This is the first time I've been home all day. I was just about
to take a nap, actually."
     "A nap?"
      "Are you still up for the concert tonight?"
      She ran her hand through her hair, looked off to the side. "Uh, I don't think I feel like a
concert. I just want to, you know, spend some time alone."
      "Are you sure? You've been talking about the show for weeks."
      "Yeah, I know. But it just doesn't seem that important anymore."
      I was determined not to let her stay home and sulk. It wasn't just a consideration for
Ginevra; I hate to see any of my friends like that. "It probably wouldn't hurt to get out and try to
take your mind off things for a while."
      "Yeah, I know. It just won't be any fun, and I don't want to bring you guys down. I wouldn't
be fun to be around, you know?"
      "Look, if you're not going to the concert, I'd be happy to hang out here with you, keep you
company. I hate to think of you sitting around without anyone to talk to."
      "Really, Martin, I think I just need sleep more than anything. The rest might help clear my
head. I'll be okay."
      "What if you wake up and need to talk to someone? We'll be in that concert for a couple of
      "I'll be okay. Really. Go see the show and let me get some sleep. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
      "Okay," I said reluctantly. "But call me if you need anything. I'll check my messages as
soon as the concert is over."
      "Sure, sure. But I'll be fine. Seeya, Martin."
      "Good night, Ginevra."
      Even though I knew it wouldn't do any good, I went home and worried for a while. Leon
and Manny stopped by my room at 7:30 for one last pre-concert bowl. If anything, the marijuana
made me more withdrawn and gloomy. I thought about not going to the show, but I couldn't
explain my worry without delving into Ginevra's personal life. So in the end I went out with
them anyway.
      The concert was good. Amazing, really. It took me a while to let myself enjoy it, but
eventually the sound and the enthusiasm of the crowd swept me up, and for a time I forgot
almost completely about Ginevra and Brent and the lovesick creature who calls himself Martin
Dalí. All their crazy problems faded into the background. Only a residual queasiness in the pit of
my stomach remained, a physical carry-over from my emotional state. Every now and again
between songs I'd notice the feeling and wonder why I had the impression that something
important was supposed to be happening. Then the situation would fill my head completely for a
second or two, before the next song started and it faded back into the background once again.
      After the show, I wanted to head straight home.
      "Aw, what's the hurry, man?" Manny asked. "Let's hang out and see if the band comes out."
      "Well ... okay. I'll give them ten minutes. But then I want to head home. Ginevra wasn't
feeling well earlier and I want to make sure she's okay."
      "You said she was going to sleep."
      "Yeah, well." That was indeed what I'd told them. I had to explain her absence somehow,
so I'd said that she wasn't feeling well and wanted to sleep instead of catching the show.
      "It's only been a couple of hours. I'm sure she's still sleeping. Even if she wakes up, what's
she going to call you for?" He was probably right. Of course he was right. Even if she did have a
valid reason to call me, it couldn't possibly be something that wouldn't wait until tomorrow.
     Ten minutes turned into twenty and then thirty as we stood outside Finney and talked about
the concert. Seth made a brief cameo, some young woman I'd never met before on his arm. I
recognized her from one of the dining halls, I thought. When it looked like the band wasn't
going to make an appearance, we decided to move along.
     "You know," Leon said in the tone he reserved for moments of inspired brilliance, "when
De La Soul did a show here, they went to Annie's Pizza afterward. If these guys want food or
want to go out anywhere, it's got to be either Annie's or the Féve. If we head down there, we
might see them. And a little pizza would be good, too."
     Manuel was exuberant. "Wise words, my insightful friend. Perchance the band hath snuck
out another entrance and is currently dining on a great repast at one of those fine establishments.
My hunger rises, and would be well met by a delectable slice. What sayest thou, Martin?"
     Reluctantly, I agreed. Ginevra was a distant worry and an even more distant hope, one that I
had been living with for too long now to take seriously on a cold March night. Pizza, on the
other hand, carried a very warm and very real appeal. The last two meals, I'd only picked at my
food due to worry about my disappeared friend. Now that I knew she was okay (combined,
perhaps, with residual munchies) I found myself ravenous.
     Beware, pizza, I thought to myself, this night you will be stalked by a man of many
     On the way across Tappan Square, Manny realized that he was down to his last cigarette.
We stopped at Gibson's general store to stock up. The line there was surprisingly long, perhaps
due to the post-concert crowd. We lost Manny for some minutes to the back aisles as he tracked
down a beverage, apparently too thirsty to wait until we reached the pizza place to partake of a
cool and refreshing beverage there. Then, as Manny reached the front of the line and ordered his
cigarettes, Leon discovered a treat on the bakery rack that he absolutely had to have--pretzel
sticks covered in dark chocolate--and we did the line thing again. Overall, it took us nearly
fifteen minutes to escape the black hole of Gibson's.
     It was almost eleven when we arrived at Annie's Pizza. By then it was starting to become
crowded with the evening rush. It wouldn't be really bad until one or two, when most of the
Friday night parties began to wind down and everyone--drunk or sober--was hungry and willing
to wait for a slice of the only warm food available in a 10-mile radius. Those few with a car
could drive to Denny's or places farther north, but otherwise once the Féve closed Annie's was
     Even though the place wasn't busy by late-night standards, the staff seemed to be
particularly slow and disorganized that night, erratic service being part of the Annie's charm. It
took us twenty minutes to get through the line, and another fifteen to get our slices of pizza. We
spent another half an hour in there, because it's almost impossible to get an excited Leon to stop
talking when he's charged up about something. And the concert had left him very excited. He
was going to sign up for guitar lessons at the conservatory, he said. And he was going to start a
band. All their songs would have something to do with food, and he'd devote half of his
earnings to world hunger. I don't know why. I'd never heard him say anything about world
hunger before, and he's never spoken of it since, but that night it was his cause. He waxed
eloquent about the starving youth in Asia. ("Euthanasia? Why not call the band Mercy Killing?"
I asked to a pair of blank stares.) Leon had solutions for the droughts in Africa, for food
shipments worldwide, for dietary supplements, and vegetarian concerns, and the miracles to be
garnered from soy and seaweed. His understanding of the subject was uncanny. Somehow Leon
always knew more about everything than anybody else knew about anything.
     After the pizza, my friends and I parted ways. They decided to go up to the Féve and see if
the band had made an appearance there. I told them I was going to call it a night. Now that my
food concerns had been met, the earlier worries about Ginevra had begun to resurface. It was
essential that I be there for her if she needed me. How else was I going to win her heart? How
else was I going to comfort her? How else was I going to help her forget all the hurt and worry?

    Overheard: "Megan, I was yelling at you because I was trying to ease your pain."

     I returned to my room to find a light blinking recriminatingly on my answering machine.
There was one new message, the panel said. Of course it was from Ginevra. I just knew it would
be. With mixed hope and trepidation, I pressed the button. The deadpan, disjointed voice
announced, "Message sent at EIGHT forty TWO ... PEE-em." Shit. That was a long time ago.
Nearly three hours. Anything could have happened since then. And then her voice--distorted and
tinny but always unmistakably Ginevra--came over the speaker.
     "Hey, Martin. It's Ginevra. Brent and I broke up. I could use--what did you say earlier?--'a
good drunk' right about now. Call me when you get in and I'll come up. Bye."
     I had the phone in my hand before the message was over. Good Lord! This was exactly
what I'd been waiting for. With lightning speed I punched in her four-digit extension. As the
phone began to ring on the other end, I could feel myself shaking.
     It rang four times before she picked up. "Hlo?" she asked. Her voice was slurred. From that
one syllable I could tell she was drunk.
     "Hey Ginevra, it's Martin."
     "Heyyy, Martin! I was jus' hangin' out with Sarah."
     "Oh, cool. I just got in and heard your message. Sorry I was out so long."
     "'Sokay. Sarah's here and we're having drinks. Had drinks. But they ran out. The drinks did.
You still have that vodka?"
     "Yeah, sure. Are you sure you want more? You sound pretty toasted."
     "Nah. I wanna have another drink. You want a drink?"
     "Uh, sure."
     "Well come on over and have a drink."
     "Uh, okay."
     "And ving the broadka. Bring the broadka. Vodka."
     "You got it!"
     "Good. Seeya soon. And your vodka."
     I grabbed the bottle and hit the door before the resonant jangle from hanging up the phone
had faded into silence. Once outside, I sprinted across campus. I cursed myself for having gone
to the concert when I could have been drinking with Ginevra. But I alternated curses with
internal twinges of guilt. She'd sounded pretty drunk. Very likely she didn't need any more
alcohol, and very possibly anything that happened (if anything happened--please God, let
something happen!) would involve my taking advantage of her confused state. But, I
rationalized, if she was determined to do something crazy she was better off with me than
anyone else. At least I knew I cared for the woman. And if she needed to talk, I should be there
for that. After all, she'd just broken up with her boyfriend of five years. Of course she'd need to
      She broke up with him! Ginevra was single! I couldn't believe it. After all these months, all
that angst and hope expended over something I couldn't control, and now it just happened on its
own. Unbelievable. Un-fucking-believable. If I hadn't been sprinting as fast as my legs would
carry me, I would have leapt up to click my heels.
      The extent of Ginevra's drunkenness was even more apparent when she answered the door.
A blast of alcohol-scented air rushed out to greet me when the portal opened, and as Ginevra
stood at the door she staggered and leaned heavily against its edge. It wavered briefly but held.
      "Heyyyyy, Martin. Martin ... Martini! Did you know your name's a drink?" She giggled.
      "Yeah. I've heard it before."
      "Martini lad" is just one of the many fun anagrams for my adopted name. Others include:
marital din, admiral nit, lariat mind, in mad trial, a darn limit, I drain malt, damn it liar, and, best
of all, animal dirt. Dale Martin gives me radiant elm, marital den (or marital end), alarmed nit,
mad latrine, tandem liar, damn retail, mental raid, Mr. Ideal Tan, and tamale rind. And Ginevra,
sweet Ginevra Montaigne, can be translated into: no mere navigating, a grave mentioning, no
negative margin, enraging moat vine, inert gnome vagina, enters giving a moan, and giant
roving enema.
       I gave Ginevra an appraising look. "How're you doing?"
      "Okay. Good, I think. I feel good." She put her hand to her cheek, gave it a couple of test
slaps. "No ... I feel numb." A look of consternation crossed her face, then brightened. "But that
feels good, so I guess I feel good." Ginevra giggled again.
      Then she lurched forward, grabbed me by the arm, and pulled me into the room. "Come in
already," she said.
      Sarah said hi from the bed; I returned the greeting, aware that Ginevra still held my arm.
Her hand stayed there for what felt like a very long time. When she removed it, it was with a
long, slow slide down my forearm, her fingertips just brushing the back of my hand. Electric.
Frightening. I surveyed the room nervously. Other than a few scattered cups and a couple of
empty plastic bottles on the desk, the room looked normal: slightly cluttered, papers at the foot
of the bed, some clothes in front of the closet, some CD's scattered near her boom box on the
desk, where one lone candle flickered.
      "Hey," she said. "Let me make you a drink."
      "Sure. What do you have?" I handed her the bottle and started to shed my jacket and gloves.
      "Ginevra inspected the desk. "Cranberry juice. No, we're out. The O.J. is gone, too." She
lofted the bottle I'd handed her and peered at it warily. "Vodka. I guess all we have is vodka."
      "I'll take vodka, then."
      "Okey-dokey." She hesitantly picked up a coffee mug from the desk and inspected its
insides. Apparently satisfied, she put it back down and sloshed it three-quarters full. "Here you
      "Uh, thanks."
      As she poured herself a similarly-sized glass of alcohol, I took a large gulp from my own,
grimacing at the taste. At least it was cold from my fridge. Suddenly it seemed like getting
drunk quickly would be a good idea. It would put me on a more equal footing with Ginevra. I
sipped as hurriedly as I could stand while she and Sarah picked up whatever conversation they
had left off. I took a seat by the desk and mostly just listened, happy too see my friend less
visibly upset than she had been the last few times we'd talked. The topics of conversation stayed
lighthearted and far away from relationships or anything remotely connected with Brent.
     Maybe half an hour after I arrived, Sarah stood suddenly, declared herself drunk, and
announced she was going home. Everyone stood and reorganized themselves during the
goodbye process, and as the two women chatted by the door I poured myself another drink.
     I turned when I heard the door shut behind me. The first thing that I noticed was how quiet
the room had become. The boom box must have stopped playing music while everyone was
talking, but nobody had noticed until now. Suddenly, the silence was palpable.
     Ginevra was looking at me from across the room. It was an odd look, both thrilling and
worrying at the same time. It was way too intent. I took a large gulp from my mug. It started to
feel very warm in the room. I had to say something.
     "So, you broke up with Brent, huh?" I felt like a jerk for bringing up the topic, but I had to
know the details.
     "Yeah. When he called last night. We were arguing, and I just couldn't stand talking to him
any more. I was like, 'Forget it, we're over!' and hung up on him. 'Forget it,' I said. And just like
that, five years goes poof. Poof!"
     By this point, I could feel the strong drink permeating my insides, liquid warmth diffusing
thoroughly. My ears were red, I could tell, though whether from their somewhat recent escape
from the cold, from the alcohol, or from nervousness I wasn't sure. It was too warm. I took
another sip and set my glass down on her dresser in order to take off my sweater.
     We talked about Brent for a while, me leaning against the dresser at the foot of her bed and
she sitting on the edge of her desk, a safe bed's length away. We discussed the break-up
conversation from the night before, more about his cheating, more about their history. She
alternated between wistful reminiscences and angrily venting her frustration. Eventually we
drifted off to other topics, though I don't really remember the details. My head began to swim as
I made short work of the vodka. Ginevra sipped at her glass occasionally but made a face each
time and set the glass aside for a while. Frankly, I was relieved to see her taking it slow. Even
leaning against the desk, she was weaving a little during our conversation. I, on the other hand,
went for another refill. As soon as it all sunk in, I'd be about caught up with her, I figured. But
there was something that told me I needed to be even farther gone than she was. I think it was
the little voice in my head suggesting that if I was drunker than she was, I couldn't possibly be
taking advantage of her.
     After refilling my glass, I planned to retreat back to the relative safety of the dresser, but
Ginevra caught my left arm as I turned away. "I'm tired of standing," she said. "Let's sit down."
She pulled me down beside her on the bed. Her hand remained on my arm. Its presence was
warm and wonderful and frightening all at the same time. My entire left side blazed with the
body heat ping-ponging between us.
     "Martin," she said. "Martin, Martin, Martin. You've always been so good to me, you know."
     I knew only that I was about to come face-to-face with big, big trouble. I didn't know what
to say, but I opened my mouth to try to say something.
     Ginevra shushed me. "Ssh. No, don't say anythin'. Lemme talk."
      I realized then that it was too late; the trouble was already there. No matter what happened,
life had just become considerably more complicated.
      "Poor Martin. You've been so sweet, since the very first day I met you. And here you are,
sitting around on a Friday, jus' listenin' to me go on about ... about that guy. Poor, sweet,
wunnerful Martin. You deserve more'n that, you know? You deserve more'n me."
      Her right hand slid down my forearm and curled around my thumb. I closed my hand
around her fist, marvelling at how well it seemed to fit there.
      I don't remember, but I must have looked like I was about to object, because Ginevra
stopped me again. "No, shush. Before I get sidetracked I wanna get all this out. I wanna thank
you for all the times you've been there. You've always been there for me. And you've been such
a good friend. More'n that. I can't even begin to tell you how much more. So ... so much more.
That's all. And I know you won't believe me, but you deserve more'n anything I can offer you.
Because you've always been there. Brent isn't there, but you are. And ... and I think I need you
there. Need you now."
      She looked up at me with those big, big eyes. In a very young voice she asked, "Are you
there--I mean here? For me?" Slowly, I nodded.
      Ginevra squeezed my thumb, then extracted her hand from mine. She stood and put a
warm, salty finger on my lips. "Ssh. Don't say anything. Jus' be here. For me." She took the mug
from my hand and placed it on the desk. I had been sitting on the very edge of the bed, half
convinced I might need to spring up at any moment. It occurred to me that I desperately needed
to do that very thing. This was the opportunity I'd been waiting for, but it wasn't right. She was
too drunk. So was I. She needed me, yes, but it wasn't the right kind of need. I wanted her to be
melting into my arms with a smile, not clinging to them because she was hurt and scared. This
wasn't the way it was supposed to happen.
      But I couldn't say no, either. I wanted her too badly. I needed her arms and her kisses and
her limbs twining with mine. I needed her heart, whatever way she gave it to me. It was all
wrong, but I couldn't say no.
      Ginevra straddled my legs, sitting down on my knees. She put her arms on my shoulders.
Without my consent, my hands found their way to her shoulder blades. Flecks of gold swam in
her eyes, reflecting the candlelight from the desk. Ginevra leaned close, the lilac scent of her
shampoo wafting over me. She paused, exhaled. From mere inches away, her warm, moist
breath tingled across my lips. She steadied herself, took a deep breath. For better or worse, we
were about to melt together. Already I couldn't distinguish where my hands ended and her
shoulders began, where my lap became hers. In the place of what used to be just me or just her
was something other, something right.
      I wanted to shout with joy, "Ginevra, I love you!" And I wanted to cry, "Ginevra, no! Not
like this!" But all that came out was a soft, submissive sigh of defeat. It didn't matter what I
wanted. It didn't matter that this was exactly what I needed, wouldn't have mattered if the
opposite were true. I could only gasp in resignation, realization that I was subject to whatever
she willed. "Ginevra ..." I sighed.
      And it said everything. It said that I was hers. It conveyed the aching and the impatience. It
represented a year and a half of pent-up lust and hope and love and heartache all finally finding
release. It was triumph and defeat, it was gain and loss, it was peace and turmoil, life and death.
All in that one softly sighed little word, "Ginevra," and-
     And it was too much. Her visage cracked, and for a moment all the hurt and loss roiling
around inside her showed through. She jerked back as if pinched. Frowning, with a visible effort
she clamped down on her emotions. But it was too late. When she leaned forward a second time
to kiss me, I could see her lip begin to tremble. I couldn't move, couldn't complete the kiss
before she fell apart. I could only watch as her eyes began to glisten. With a horrible, inevitable
lassitude, a single tear beaded at the corner of her eye and then, with a startling suddenness,
broke free to race down her cheek. That was the end of it. Her whole face crumpled then, and
with a sob she threw her arms around me and buried her face in my shoulder.
     I caught a muffled, "Oh God, how could this happen!" before whatever else she wanted to
say degenerated into sobs. The initial force of her hug knocked me backwards, and we sprawled
across the bed. She just lay there atop me, gripping me fiercely and crying into my shoulder. I
held on for all I was worth, soothing and hushing her as best I could. Ginevra cried for a long
time; endless racking sobs shook both of us, punctuated occasionally as she banged her forehead
into my clavicle. Slowly the tears faded away, and at some point she began talking. At first I
couldn't even understand her as she whispered hoarsely into my shirt. It didn't matter. Gradually,
her words became clearer. She was talking about the future she'd pictured so clearly before and
now believed was destroyed. Her, and Brent, and their plans after school. Moving to California
and having a little garden and raising children along the coast. Plans for next year, plans for
thirty years from now. She wove in and out of the past, future, and present. Disjointed, halfway
incoherent, but overall portraying a vivid image of the lifetime she had planned to lead. She was
giving a eulogy, I thought, for all that was lost. Eventually she transitioned back to tears--more
gentle this time--and then those faded into a quiet sniffling.
     We lay that way for a long time. I kept willing my hands to try a gentle caress, perhaps
stroke an elbow or push back her hair, but they remained adamantly in place, comforting her
shoulders, safe and soothing. I'd like to think there is an alternate universe where Martin and
Ginevra went on to make passionate love after that turbulent outbreak, and that they were
exceedingly happy. Such a universe would have made sense. It would have been right. In my
own universe, an absurd and degenerate reality to be sure, Ginevra eventually clambered off me
and the bed and fetched herself a Kleenex. She blew her nose loudly, elephant-like, and laughed
uneasily at the way the sound shattered the quiet we'd been steeping in.
     She came back to the bed but pushed me towards the wall. "Move over," she said. I
straightened out and made room, taking advantage of the opportunity to prop one of her many
pillows under my head. Ginevra snuggled up against me, placed her head on my shoulder. She
pulled my right arm around to link with my left over her stomach. It was nice, but I could tell
her goals had changed. Whatever potential had been in the air earlier was gone. I was back to
being supportive Martin, no longer Martin the answer to everything. In a way, I figured then that
I'd missed my chance twice over, but the rational part of my mind kept reassuring me that there
would be plenty of time, that we could still work something out in the days ahead.
     We stared up at the ceiling for a while, silently thinking. Then she gave a sigh that came
from the tips of her toes.
     "What am I going to do, Martin?"
     "I don't know. You don't have to know immediately. It's all still a shock, still too sudden.
Give it some time. Let the wounds heal a little. Take it easy. Try not to think about it too much,
if you can. I know it's hard, but try. Take frequent deep breaths. If things get bad, just focus on
the breathing until you feel better. It's gonna hurt sometimes, maybe a lot of the time. Don't
expect it won't. It's all pretty crazy. Don't blame yourself for anything."
      I continued rambling for a while. It didn't seem to matter what I said, just that I said
something, and that it was calm and reassuring. I wasn't particularly coherent, as there was still a
quart of alcohol coursing through my veins.
      Eventually I found myself saying, "... so of course your whole world view is shaken up a
lot. You had a whole life planned out, and you're not sure if it makes sense any more. You had a
lot riding on one guy. I mean, you loved him, right, so ... so-
      It was supposed to be a rhetorical question, but I'd run out of steam. Ginevra answered
anyway. "Yeah, I love him."
      She caught herself, tried to make a correction. "Loved him," she amended. "I loved him."
      We sat in silence for a moment while she thought about it. "No, that's not right. I do love
him. Damn it! I still love him, you know? How can I ... after all that he ... damn!" She pounded
the mattress with a fist. "God, so help me ... I can't believe it. I ... I ... oh, God!"
      Ginevra began to cry again, softly. I could feel her stomach shaking beneath my hands.
Maybe my hands were shaking, too. It's entirely possible. What had I done? I guess it was to be
expected that she still loved Brent. Love doesn't just get turned off in an instant. Trust and
respect were a different story, but love took more time. Still, why the hell did I have to call
attention to it? And what did these tears mean? What conclusion was she drawing? What would
she do tomorrow, or the next day?
      I stared at the ceiling, searching for the answers in the flecks and spots of the tiles hovering
above me. They were as likely to provide meaning as anything else this strange evening. As I
worried, Ginevra slowly quieted and relaxed. Within a few minutes, the heavy breathing of
slumber sounded in my ears. Good, I figured. She probably needed the sleep. Me, I was wide
awake. As much as I had wildly hoped, never had I truly expected to have this woman sleeping
in my arms. It was unbelievable. And less comfortable than I'd imagined. My left arm--the one
she was using as a pillow--had gone to sleep long ago. But still I found myself smiling up into
the darkness. I couldn't help it. Here she was, here I was. Whatever happened tomorrow, at least
we had this night together, this moment of closeness and warmth. I tried not to think about how
close we might have been to something even more intimate. They just hurt too much, those
memories. In the morning we could sort everything out.
      In the morning ...
      What would happen in the morning? We'd be hung over, hurting and bitter. Would she
remember anything? Would she remember needing me? Would she still need me? Would she
remember her love for Brent? Could she possibly forgive him? Would they get back together?
Where would that leave me? Alone. Again. Hopeless, hopeless. There was a sinking feeling in
the pit of my stomach. It could happen. It might happen. She might not be able to give up five
years of history, might be unwilling or afraid to let it go. Brent might talk her out of her anger,
might win her forgiveness. I could be sent back to second place. There would be no joy for
Martin in this. The cold, scaly hand of doom traced one clawed finger down my spine and
twisted slowly in my guts.
      I closed my eyes, felt a burning behind my eyelids. The sudden spinning and jerking of the
room forced me to snap them open again. Maybe I wasn't in the best of conditions, either. The
vodka wasn't sitting well in my stomach, and the urge to visit the restroom was growing on me.
But I refused to move. All I had was this one night, it seemed. How could I risk waking Ginevra
up when she'd just fallen asleep in my arms? Just let me soak it all in, first. The way she looked,
the way she smelled. Her hair splayed across my arm. The curve of her breasts hiding my left
arm from view. The sound of her breathing. The pressure of her head on my shoulder, the
warmth of one elbow resting against my ribs, the delightful presence of her hip pressed against
mine. Whatever tomorrow brought, at least I would have a few hours of this first. Winning or
losing her heart was beyond my control, but at least for this one night I could know the warmth
of her presence. I let out a deep breath, ready to savor the experience for as many hours as were
available to me.

     Overheard: Voices under the window. Sounds in the night.
     The voices are always there. Every day after sunset. They're spawned by the dark, it seems.
To remind us what we're not doing. That while we've given up on the day there are others who
are still enjoying its fruits. Even when the voices speak other words, they always say the same
thing: "You're alone. We're not. The best of your day is over. Ours is happening right now.
     Except for this one night, when, for but moments, the voices under the window fall mute.
There's still laughter, still muffled conversation, but the words no longer mean anything. They're
just empty sounds. Ginevra's aura negates them completely. The best of my day is now. The best
of any time, anywhere, is now.
     And now.
     And now ...
     The voices, if anything, convey a note of jealousy. Suckers.

      The sound of fate intervening is subtle. It's nothing like in the movies: trumpeting fanfares
or rock 'n' roll songs or shouted love and vengeance. It's not gunshots and explosions and
crashing cymbals. It's not the roar of engines. It's not even the whistle of a speeding arrow or the
creak of a closet door. The sound of doom announcing itself is one jingling little chirping click.
It's a cricket noise, a mouse noise, nothing more noticeable than the scritch of a pen across
paper. But with a few seemingly insignificant decibels, it can shatter everything.
      The sound that destroyed me was the tick of a buzzer arm in a 70s-issue dorm room phone
as it cocked back just before ringing. The phones did that sometimes. They would emit just the
tiniest of clicks as they came to life, and then, two or three seconds later the full force of a
buzzing, clanging klaxon would echo through the room.
      After the click, there passed two of the longest seconds of my entire life. Comprehension of
doom overwhelmed me. My entire body turned sour and knotted with dread. Adrenaline raced
up and down my spine, sweat began to leak from my pores, and my brittle heart shattered into so
many fragments it practically vaporized. The gig was up. I wasn't going to get Ginevra. I wasn't
going to sleep with her. I wasn't going to kiss her. I wasn't even going to have the opportunity to
lie beside her in peace for more than another two seconds. It was all over. I damned the phone
for the disturbance it was going to cause. I cursed my stupid rationalizations earlier in the night:
letting myself be talked into going to the concert in the first place, hanging out afterward, going
out for pizza, not checking my messages sooner. All of those things cost me valuable time that
could have been spent with Ginevra. Time that could have changed everything. Or maybe time
that only gave me a few precious more seconds next to her--but oh, what precious seconds they
would have been! If I'd been home earlier, she would have walked down to my room, and we
might be lying in my bed right now, safe from interruptive phone calls. Safe from anything that
might take her from my arms. Safe from Brent. For a moment, I actually hated Manny for
talking me into waiting for the band, hated Leon for suggesting pizza. I hated Sarah for staying
and talking so long. I bemoaned the stupid planning that placed me on the far side of the bed
from the door. Perhaps, just perhaps, I reasoned, if I were on the near side of the bed, I might be
able to slip out from under her and reach the phone fast enough to, if not preempt it entirely, at
least interrupt the first ring before it woke the sleeping woman. But to slide out from under her,
bounce across the bed, and speed across the room without waking her, no way. Even if I could,
then I'd have to answer the phone and try to explain things. Why I was answering, why she was
sleeping, it could get messy. I could hang up, but he might call back. And if I left the phone off
the hook, after a couple of minutes it would go into the please-hand-me-up warning buzz.
Certainly that would wake her up, too. Maybe I could take the phone off the wall, disconnecting
it entirely. They could be detached from the walls with just a little finagling. If only I could get
to the phone ... but that wasn't an option. I cursed my greedy refusal to get out of bed and go to
the bathroom when I'd thought about it moments before. With luck, I might have been standing
right next to the phone when it made that fateful click. Then I could have taken care of
everything, and if I'd been quiet enough, Ginevra may have slept on, oblivious. I could have
climbed back into that bed, wrapped my arms aroun