Sunday, September 27, 2009


[The College stories start here.]

This story fits into a series about college, but I'm writing this one out of order. There were a few things I forgot before, and one thing I remembered that didn't fit into the other stories.

If you haven't read the College Stories, and you are obsessive, and you have some time on your hands, you will want to start at Drop and work your way forward following the link to the next story at the bottom of each one. You'll come through here at a reasonable point in the storyline, and then continue on to the stirring conclusion of the arc.

The main things I need to say to catch you up on my middle years of college are that I worked in the university library and that I had an inexplicable attraction to a girl called Mary whom I did not totally get along with. Maybe you had one of those things going once. I don't know how many people that happens to.

You must at least know how an obsession goes. You keep trying to think of other things, but you keep coming back to the object of the obsession. Come on, you know how it is. No one wants it. It just happens. I'm not saying it makes sense.

I did lots of things that had nothing to do with Mary.

Life can only be understood backwards ; but it must be lived forwards.

—possibly Søren Kierkegaard

And that's if we ever understand life at all.

We drift through a seemingly endless childhood only to go over the falls into the confusion of young adulthood. We've pushed away our parents and started to realize how badly we need to replace them with someone of our own generation. Instinct doesn't inform us what to do, but just pushes us onward. Look! Maybe she's the one! Or maybe she isn't. Something like that.

We go through steps in life. Maybe it's necessary to walk down some weird roads to reach a good place. Maybe it's necessary, or maybe it's just the way it happens. And walking down those weird roads, we go one step at a time, into the darkness of an unknowable future. Maybe things will work out.

We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.

—Criswell, Plan 9 From Outer Space

That popped into my head. I think it means I'm starting to write like Ed Wood, so let's move along.

I mentioned once that the library I worked in staffed a branch called Philosophy Library, but we had another one too, called Paterno. Paterno wasn't in the same building or even in the main campus block, but lay across the street in a special building called Casa Italiana that had been donated to promote Italian studies. Charles Paterno and his brothers built apartment houses all over Morningside Heights.

Paterno was a pretty sizable collection of Italian books on all subjects. It was run by one man, but when he was on vacation we had to cover it. There wasn't much business, so there wasn't much to do. I had time to pick up the current magazines like Oggi and that other one I can't remember the name of, that had the barely dressed Italian actresses on the cover.

It was culture shock, the easy European attitudes about what was appropriate in popular magazines. The women looked pretty good. I just wouldn't have expected to see that much of them in a general American magazine. But never mind that. The shock is really not so much what the difference is, but that there is any difference at all. There are whole nations full of people whose take on life is fundamentally different! Everything that comes along, they have a slightly different take on it. Whoa. It's like the world is full of things you don't expect to find.

This reminds me of a story we learned in Greek class back in Huge Hall. I'll tell you why in a minute, but first here's the story.

A young man in ancient Greece wanted to learn Philosophy, and after learning a little about the different schools, he decided that the Stoics fit closest to what he believed. Nothing to excess, everything in moderation. They taught that keeping oneself well balanced and avoiding extremes was the way to live a good life.

The school of the Stoic philosophers was in another town, so the young man set off. Some days later, as he drew near the town, he heard a commotion going on. At the gate he asked someone if this was where he would find the Stoics. Yes, he was told, go down this way and turn that way. Every step brought him closer to the noise. He heard music, shouting, laughing.

He came to a large building in a walled courtyard. A drunken man at the doorway confirmed that this was the School of the Stoics. As the young man entered, he saw men lying on the ground in wine-stained clothing, messy tables of half eaten food, men chasing young women and young men, and people singing bawdy songs in off key voices to the playing of tottering musicians. This could not possibly be the Stoics.

An older man approached and asked the young man if he'd come to learn from the Stoics. But what is all this, he asked ; I thought the Stoics did nothing to excess. The answer he was given was this. If we never did anything to excess, that would be taking "everything in moderation" to excess, so rather than fall into that logical trap, from time to time we have a party. Have some wine. We can talk philosophy tomorrow.

Maybe that's what the Stoics really did, or maybe I fell for a joke they told two thousand years ago.

Am I losing the thread? No, I am not. I just wanted to bring out how confusing the world looks to you in college. You think you know pretty much what you're going to get, but it's not high school part 2. The steps we take in college are different. We get exposed to so many things that are foreign to our experience. It doesn't need to be foreign as in another country, although getting a wider view of the world is part of a good education. It can just be different points of view. Or friends different from the ones we had before. Like Mary.

That I couldn't figure Mary out might say something about me, or not. I am on the fence about this. I don't claim uncanny abilities to sense people's point of view, or as my pal Lisa would tell me more directly, I can never read people. I know that, for soft values of "never". But was Mary a person who was very hard to read? That would be nice to think.

Mary was not my only problem. You shouldn't think I went along happily and then hit the wall only when I ran into her. Freakin' college. Walk into a class where the instructor thinks we already know things most of us never learned, or get a vague paper assignment that gets graded tough on adherence to some rubric that we were supposed to guess. Or go to work thinking at least that will be just the usual stuff (especially if Mary's not working that shift), and, wham! Here it comes!

You know, jobs for high school kids are usually pretty much do this, do that. Once you're older they start to think you can handle a little more. Sometimes management has to throw somebody into the pool without lessons, and they might pick you, kid. Look out.

I had a special assignment one day. Someone was needed to cover Columbiana for the afternoon. It's a special collection about the history of the university itself, related to the Rare Books and Manuscripts division, who normally covered it, but they must have been very shorthanded this one day, and the finger of fate pointed at the Boy Genius.

I had never even been in Columbiana. This was not a step I wanted to take. It was going to be weird. I guess I can fake it with the best of them, but I hadn't learned yet that I could have fun with it. Hey, somebody might come in and ask me something I have no idea about! Rabbit in the headlights! That bugged me then. I don't worry about it now, many steps down the road. Nobody knows it all anyway. Cop an attitude, you know plenty of things but just not that one thing you are being asked about. In fact the more things you know, the easier it gets to say you don't know something. I have a classical Greek story about that too, but I'll save it for the next time I'm telling you how much I don't know.

Columbiana is in the Low Library building, which sounds like the place a library would be, unless you know that Low hasn't been the university library building since the 1930s. It's where the bigwigs keep their wigs now. The Trustees Room, the Office of the President, and on down. Maybe Columbiana is still there in case the Provost or the Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences needs to run in and check historical precedent once in a while.

I was going to Columbiana mainly so it could be open as advertised. If anyone came in who did not already know what they were doing, I could try to give them general advice, and if that wouldn't do it, I could call over to Rare Books, and they'd find the answer for me.

There was one phone inquiry. For publication, what was the middle name of Daniel D Tompkins, sixth Vice President of the United States? He was a graduate of Columbia College, class of 1795. Perhaps the university had some record that would show the middle name that had so far eluded the researchers. This was a good one. Someone was being very thorough. I had no idea of the answer, but it seemed totally professional to say I'd check and call back. I took the phone number. And I called over to Rare Books.

They must have duplicate copies of some Columbiana material over in Rare Books, because when they got back to me, it wasn't to tell me what publications I should take a look at, but to give me the answer. I still remember it. It turns out that there were two young men called Daniel Tompkins at Columbia at the same time, and this one had added the D so that his name would be different. He had no middle name and it was thought that he had just repeated the D for Daniel. (This explanation has eluded even the Wikipedia writers.)

That was the highlight of that day. Really. Look, it has stuck in my head, and I am a person who can remember only four of the five things my family want me to pick up at the grocery store. Some day I will hear someone say, "Vice President Daniel D Tompkins... gee, I wonder what the D stands for?" I will know the answer. Maybe then I can consider the wisdom passed along, and forget it, and reuse the brain cells for something practical.

Did I really try to figure out Mary?

Yes, one day I really did. One evening. I had to talk her away from the communist apartment and get her to come out to Low steps with me. She was grumbling all the way. No time, have to study. But she did it for me.

I'd like you to picture the setting for this, if I can put it across to you the way I can still see it in my mind. The stone steps are about 150 feet wide, leading down to the big plaza in front of Low Library, right in the middle of the campus. It was pitch dark out. There are lamps around the edge of the plaza. We wore jackets. There are always students out on the steps until very late, except in the dead of winter. It's the front stoop of Columbia. It's where we hang out. And it's a huge expanse, so if two people want to have a quiet conversation, they can find a spot away enough from people. You can sit on those steps and looking out across the big empty space, toward the library where Mary and I worked.

We went up near the statue of Alma Mater and sat on the steps. And I attempted to say a few things, whatever it was I had planned to say. You'll think I'm being evasive now, but I really don't remember the verbal content. I remember only the feel of the thing, and one sentence, "this is scary". It was. I wanted to say something to her and I had no clue how she would react.

I was looking up at the black sky. She was looking at the stone steps and squirming with her shoe. I must have told her I was confused. Aren't we all?

A kind trick of memory has blotted out any more than that. I walked her back to her building. The event neither ruined nor helped whatever our weird relationship was. I had transmitted a message into the void. I could not read her. We had gone up the steps and come back down.

Now you say you're leaving home
'cause you want to be alone.
Ain't it funny how you feel
when you're finding out it's real?

Oh to live on Sugar Mountain
with the barkers and the colored balloons.
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain,
though you're thinking that you're leaving there too soon.
You're leaving there too soon.

—Neil Young, "Sugar Mountain"

PS: Funny thing about that Søren Kierkegaard quote: I couldn't source it. I found a few scholarly books on Kierkegaard that give the quote without attribution. In the introduction to an edition of his selected letters, the editor gives the weaselly attribution "as Kierkegaard said elsewhere"! Maybe it's something he should have said.

Photo of Low steps as seen in 1986.

[The next college story is Anthem.]

Next time:
Stone House II.


  1. The Kierkegaard quote is sourced from his journals, in the Papers and Journals Hannay edition, it's on page 161.

  2. Confirmed quote (thanks to my friend Michael):

    It is quite true what philosophy says: that life must be understood backwards. But then one forgets the other principle: that is must be lived forwards. Which principle, the more one thinks it through, ends exactly with the thought that temporal life can never properly be understood precisely because I can at no instant find complete rest in which to adopt the position: backwards.

    This is found at "43 IV A 164" in "Lund's and Barfod's numbering".

    I'm sticking with my story: the short version is what he SHOULD have said.