FAME, WEALTH OR POWER?

One of the games we played in our college dorm triple was “F,W or P”, otherwise known as “Fame, Wealth or Power”. The three of us had narrowed down life and its attendant successes to those three outcomes. You could only value one over the others. Oddly, there was also the assumption that we could probably get what we chose. After all, we were Yale University undergraduates in 1960 and success in one of those areas (fame, wealth or power) was virtually assured in our culture. If, after graduating from Yale, you didn’t become famous, wealthy or powerful, you were simply squandering your natural inheritance.

50 years later I realize why they don’t entrust 20 year-olds with all that many serious responsibilities (beyond fighting and dying in wars we wiser elders have jury-rigged onto their shoulders). Only a 20 year old or a seriously demented adult can see life as a series of three choices. There were so many logical fallacies in our game that it is hardly worth doing the math. Suffice to say, if you are powerful and famous, there’s a damned good chance you’ll be rich as Midas.

Our game also highlights one of the mysteries of college life: where do kids get off wasting time debating silly arguments? Surely our forefathers, whacking away at the native Americans and the thick forests, didn’t curl up in their log cabins wondering about arrows never reaching targets if they kept halving the distance every x seconds until infinity, whatever the hell that was. Later on, sons of plantation owners were allowed the privilege of drinking, riding, and debating whatever they felt like until Appomattox.

Young chipmunks have to learn on the job and there is no time at all for a baby wild boar to ponder why she was born and to what heights she might rise if she keeps her snout to the forest floor. Dogs apparently dream of chasing prey but rarely of winning Best in Show.

Only us. Only we. Gifted with the knowledge of our own mortality we mess around in myriad ways to wile away the time and terrors of our finity. I know that every day of my life I have redecorated my cabin on The Titanic. I have other friends on the ship who spend their time in the chapel, others who go from salon to salon looking for diversions, and others who take a seat at the bar and count their days in ounces.

It took me many years to realize that my choice in the 1960 dorm room, Fame, was a distorted version of the word love. At that age and for many years to follow I confused love with attention, making that love a zero-sum game.

When I was a child…I spake as…and thought….and knew very little.

The First 50 Years Are Worth It–A Valentine

I am here to tell you I am a very slow learner.

[Learning is not the same thing as memorizing, as you already know. I was a very good memorizer once upon a time. That “nuisance ability” permitted me to pass tests and, many times, do very well. A month later I would recall but a fraction of what I had been able to regurgitate. ]

Thus I can say without fear of contradiction that whatever “wisdom” I have intuited has come about as the result of running headlong into myriad walls—some padded, some concrete, some aflame. You will have to trust that I am not lying to you when I say that I sincerely believe that marriage gets really fun after 50 years. Although our hair and skin and bones may not resemble those long-ago children we were in 1962, we have come back to that crazy-quilt land where love and laughter triumph daily over peevishness, resentments, and bad memories.

If I didn’t know better I’d suspect that we have gotten bored with making statements like “I hate it when you eat big pretzels and I can hear you crunching” and “Why, when we wake up in the morning, do you have the entire quilt on your side of the bed?” It turns out nobody really cares anymore.

And that leaves lots of room for love and sharing and laughing at our own frailties as well as yours.

It also leaves acres of room for being able to speak in a lifetime of shorthand and psychic sensibility. She: You oughta call Leo. Me: Get out of my head. I was thinking that exact same thing. She: You wanta order a pizza? Me: I already did. Me: You know who that new neighbor looks like? She: The secretary you had at Benton & Bowles in 1962? Me: Exactly. What was her name? She: Marlene. Me: Right.

There is no substitute for communication that doesn’t need too many words. How can you get a new spouse up to speed on why he or she should really love “All We Are Is Dust In The Wind” as much as you do even though you know it’s crap?

And yet, getting here is not half the fun, contrary to the old airline ad. (Imagine an airline trying to sell itself on being fun now? Not in tourist anyway…) Getting to 50 years of wedlock (-lock? Divorce is wed-unlock?) means fights, angers, imaginary divorces and a host of sleights, fights and bedevilments. In our society everything is variety, the spice of life. Change careers every 7 years and husbands every 6. Our marriage has been pretty much a marathon with a long-distance runner and a sprinter welded at the hip.

It has meant giving up the idea that everything should go my way, that my way is best and all my thoughts are handed down from god, even though my previous experience is mute testimony to the fact that I am as screwed up as any functioning human has any right to be.

I have found that not being right all the time gives me hours of free time every day during which I can amuse myself deciding how our country ought to stop trying to rule the world. (America needs a 12 Step Program whereat it might have to accept that it is NOT The Boss of You.)

I have not internalized all these things. I have “slips” frequently, but now I often recognize that I have been a dick and take steps to fix what I have broken.

When you have decided that you are married to your best friend it is hard to imagine dropping the only person who truly understands you.

That is a treasure, even if she tells you that you are not always nice.

THE EVIL MEN DO LIVES AFTER THEM

For those of you who have not yet had American History of the 20th Century, once upon a time there was a senator by the name of Thomas Eagleton, an otherwise well-behaved pol from Missouri, who, in 1972, was anointed George McGovern’s running mate for Veep.

And then All Hell Broke Loose.

Shortly after the ticket started running around being anti-Vietnam-war, some tricksters from the other party uncovered the fact that said Eagleton had had shock therapy twice for depression. In the ensuing brouhaha McGovern was forced to drop Eagleton and substitute him with Sarge Shriver. That ticket went on to defeat at the hands of Tricky Dick Nixon of whom it might be said he should have had ECT before Watergate.

But such is history where good guys are often stuffed and wars go on for reasons we are not supposed to inquire about.

But this post actually has nothing to do with the terrible choice American voters made in 1972 and the number of people who died because the Military-Industrial Complex beat the Doves featherless.

What happened was that my very young sons and I renamed our tickling game after Thomas Eagleton owning to the fact that we laughingly called it “shock therapy” and, for short, “An Eagleton”. (I am here to accept full guilt for this insensitive use of another human’s suffering to cloak our childlike delight. But those were the Hippie Seventies, three of us had been to Woodstock, and we were furious that our Peace Candidate, Gene McG, had blundered so badly before getting out the starting gate. Not very good excuses, but reasonable explanations.)

For several years after that, all I had to do was look sideways at either son and whisper “Eagleton” and giggles ensued.

Such is life. Regrets follow us around like Jacob Marley’s cash boxes chained to our legs.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” *

*The final line of THE GREAT GATSBY, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Getting Into College Is Dumber Than College Itself

In 1957 Kingman Brewster stopped off at my prep school, Milton Academy, to speak to those of us who were interested in applying to Yale for admission in Fall, 1958. Mr. Brewster was not yet President of Yale. He was (or was about to be) Provost.

The meeting was held in the Senior Study in Wolcott House whose only decoration I can recall was an autographed photo of T.S. Eliot who had gone to or not gone to Milton. None of us cared all that much who had once gone to Milton. Bobby Kennedy had gone to Milton. I wrote an article for The Orange and Blue that Bobby had gone and not caused much of a stir. (I had caused more of a stir at Milton than Bobby, but not of the good kind.) {In fact I had been apprehended doing something that so shocked Milton’s Board of Trustees they chickened out from expelling me for fear the publicity would be horrendous.}

We were interested in going to THE COLLEGE OF OUR CHOICE. Out of our class of 48 men, about half would get into Harvard and a handful would get into Yale. That was statutory. After all, most of us knew our ways around Cambridge, had friends at Harvard (who had graduated from Milton earlier), and could find our ways to the store off Harvard Square where you could buy Playboy without a hassle.

Just to show you how different things used to be, I was a B to B+ student (on a good day) and these were my only college choices: Harvard, Yale and Columbia. Yes, Columbia was my “insurance” college. Could I get into any of those today with my record?

No. (But back then I was accepted by all three.) I chose Yale, partly because Kingman Brewster was such a refreshingly honest emissary of one of the Big Three. And partly because I suspected that if I wound up in Cambridge, I’d drink myself out of Harvard by New Year’s. I knew too many people there who would help me go to my dark side.

But my inability to compete with today’s High School Seniors is not the point of my meandering. It is, rather, something that Kingman Brewster said to us that night that I have never forgotten. I have no idea why I remember this so well, but chalk it up to a rare moment of wisdom for my 17 year old’s self.

BREWSTER (1957): “No college is as good as it is hard to get into.”

I will grant you that that is a pretty twisted bit of syntax, but it is brilliant because you cannot forget it. That, and the fact that it is really really really really true.

Those of you with college age kids and those of you who actually ARE college age kids need to know this and etch it on your brows. Some of you will write poetic essays about why you are right for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago, Brown, Stamford, Oxford, Cal State Davis. You will run for President of everything from Debate Club to Chess Club and Junior Year Abroad. Some of you will spend every Spring Vacation hammering nails in poor people’s front porches because you care and it also looks wonderful on your admissions record. You will lose sleep. You will judge yourselves by your success or failure to get into THE COLLEGE OF YOUR CHOICE.
The educations you receive will be fine, but, as Mr. Brewster told us, that education will never be as good as what it took for you to get there.

So chill. (Yeah, right. Easy for you to say, born in 1940 and admitted to Yale under the entitled white guy’s Bernoulli principle. The uplift vacuum glided you right into a berth in New Haven.)

True. But I have worked for brilliant powerful people who went to colleges I would have been embarrassed to have to go to back in the day. They were smarter than I was, more driven and didn’t seem at all embarrassed by not being able to join The Yale Club.

In retrospect, I laud Kingman Brewster and I have concluded on your behalf that if you are supposed to be somebody (however you define that concept), you will be no matter whether you go to Harvard, Yale, or The New York School of Announcing and Speech (where I went after Yale).

Our society is so wrong. It was when I was 18 and it hasn’t gotten any better. Just don’t quit.

Why Vampires and Zombies Don’t Scare Me In The Least

I was born in an era, in a geographical locus, and in a family which over-valued defecation.

My siblings and I (at least my older sister, my older brother and I—our younger brother was born after the importance of defecation appears to have slacked off slightly) learned that no sun could ever set without every well-behaved child producing one or more BMs in the proper receptacle.

As near as I can tell, the medical establishment in the late 1930’s and early 40’s equated constipation with the gateway to innumerable horrors. A failure to eliminate in a timely fashion meant that toxins would surely multiply, creating a domino effect culminating in an early and unforgivably embarrassing death.

I do not recall being badgered to finish my grits or my fried SPAM sandwiches, but our lives were a constant reminder of the fact that no sooner had we swallowed those nutrients, within our tiny bodies ran a mighty sewer of unimagined horrors. One moment SPAM, the next minute, repulsive toxic overdrive.

It must be remembered that our parents had only just survived The Spanish Influenza, Diphtheria, polio, Yellow Fever, (theirs was New Orleans in the early 20th Century) impetigo, blood poisoning and TB (my mother and her mother had it). You could die from infections because penicillin was only just coming of age and if Sulfa didn’t cure you, you were pretty much screwed. Everyone’s parents could recite how Calvin Coolidge’s son died from an infection from wearing black socks on an infected foot. (Don’t ask. I haven’t a clue.) The wealthiest folks moved north for the summer—North Carolina was a very popular place. Denver was good if you had TB. So our folks had a heightened fear of amputations, festerings, coughing, and lockjaw.

Yellow Fever aside, Elimination was Lord of our nursery and the Prince of Misrule was the dreaded little red rubber ball or the full-blown King Enema. Doctors of the day spoke of these “cures” for constipation the way today’s pediatricians say “Children’s Tylenol”. Mothers checked with Nannies or confronted children with the question of the day: “Have you produced?”

You could lie. But lying never worked. They could tell. They had ways. As a three year old I tried lying but it would be years before I could lie convincingly. For years I felt as if my only value was as a producer of digested foodstuffs. In fact, when my older brother and I played games at night during thunderstorms, giggling insanely we’d dive beneath our covers and pretend to be “mining” for feces. I guess that was our way of trying to get some juvenile control over the scariest thing in our lives.

(Years later, watching “Sibyl” who owed her split personality to over-aggressive-enemafication, I felt I got off easy.)

One memory remains of screaming at my mother “Not the little rubber ball!” and running and being caught and powerless. I would not be surprised if I grew up hyper-vigilant if such was my introduction to parental loving care.

Oh, and if you think I am making this up, I recall my mother telling a story about a doctor who suggested you could break any child’s bad habits by the sudden application of the enema. He/she would never spit, curse, projectile vomit or smoke again.

What’s the point of letting you into the little shop of horrors I like to call my youth? Well, the next time somebody in a white coat tells you that this or that is medically necessary try to remember that after blood letting and leeches came purgatives and the red rubber ball.

That is why I am not in the least afraid of Vampires and Zombies. Real people are much scarier.