The College Rush

Freshmen at the University of Dayton didn’t know any better. Girls talked to guys just met and agreed to dates. Boys got together for pick up basketball games. Parties were egalitarian and easy going. Social status and birthplace meant nothing in September. But things changed by the end of October.

The fraternities and sororities rushed in late September and accepted new recruits by the end of October. The sorting process established caste systems among the freshmen. Members of certain fraternities didn’t associate with members of rival brotherhoods. Sororities limited dating options. Non-Greeks became the untouchables.

Upperclassmen reinforced social standards already established at the University: some students joined the elite; the rest were excluded. The atmosphere of open friendliness abruptly withered. If a boy hadn’t joined a frat, or hadn’t joined the right frat, he had no status in the dating game. A girl who formerly greeted a classmate with a smile would now pretend that he/she no longer existed.

Birthplace became an issue. Students from the northeast looked down upon students from Dayton. Kids from western Pennsylvania and Michigan had a lower standing than punks from Jersey. A banner hung from a fence during club recruitment week invited out of towners to join the “Shoot a Commuter Club”.

I was one of the locals and commuted. My friends generally came from Dayton and its suburbs. We didn’t choose to huddle together, but simply got sorted into our designated milieu. Students from Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati ranked higher than us, and we discovered that even fellow Ohioans reserved a portion of their contempt for the Gem City.

More subtle distinctions gradually emerged. A Dayton girl who had attended a Catholic high school kept asking me if I was a Catholic. She refused to accept an affirmative and looked at me with suspicion. Denise somehow sensed that I had attended a public high school and hadn’t undergone full indoctrination in the Catholic education system. I wasn’t truly one of her people.

The arbitrary narrowness of the sorting process bothered me at first, but I soon learned to curb friendly impulses when thrown together with folks outside my “play group”. I’d experienced a similar isolation in high school based on my blue collar background. I didn’t fit in with the kids whose fathers were professionals, who didn’t wonder whether their dads would fork over money for a class ring. No new hardship in college. Just more of the same.

I did try to gun for a girl from Philadelphia in my senior year. I eventually discovered that a woman named Sheila had already won her affections, but endured an awkward conversation with my intended before giving up the chase. Kathy narrowed her eyes after she discovered my place of birth and said, “So, you think that the sun rises and falls at the city limits, don’tcha?”

We had discussed poetry and literature, and she had seen and appreciated my paintings. But to her I was just a rube.

I still remember the rush of my first days in college when all things seemed possible. It’s too bad that our natural tendency to sort and rank ruined a glimpse of paradise.

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Family Reunion Follies

Dad parked in a shady lot at the bottom of a small hill. My brother, sister, mother and I joined him in hauling a picnic basket, cooler and baseball gear up to the park’s pavilion. We always arrived late and had to thread past crowded tables laden with food to find an open spot. Potato salad and baked bean dishes huddled side by side. Paprika-dusted deviled eggs sweated inside Tupperware containers. Occasional bowls of three bean salad added color accents to the spread. Hot dogs and hamburger patties hissed on a nearby grill, and the smoke rising from the briquettes smelled of fat and charred meat.

Aunts Katy, Deannie, and Rose had staked out their spot on the sunny side. They lay tanning on their chaise lounges, squinted shrewdly at less favored aunts and uncles and made tight lipped observations. Uncle Carl had grown a stringy beard that made him look like a billy goat. Aunt Carol had put on weight, and the lime green horizontal stripes on her knit wear top didn’t do much to hide it. One cousin had stretched out weedy and lean and sported a laughable upper lip fuzz that one day might become a mustache. Another cuz had poured herself into ultra tight jeans and was asking for trouble.

The uncles sat at a table drinking beer, smoking cigarettes and cigars, playing poker. They slapped cards down when they made a play, carefully scooped dimes and quarters into their piles when they won, and taunted the biggest losers. They mostly ignored the kids, but Uncle Paul gave me an unkind glare as I passed by. He disliked my mother, and his animosity extended to her brood.

The aunts gathered wandering children and herded them to their seats. An uncle served up platters of hamburgers and dogs. The men got another beer or two to wash down their meals. Folks wandered up and down sampling food from the communal spread. I stayed away from Aunt Jody’s potato salad. She put in too much mustard. A lake of bacon grease floated on top of Aunt Katy’s bake beans. A green salad had unidentifiable, smelly white chunks crumbled over the top. I stuck to food Mom had made.

Mom let us drink soda pop at summer reunions, and I sat down with a can of grape. The sweet acidity clashed with greasy chips, beans and burger making my stomach churn half way through the meal. I felt like I’d eaten a watermelon all by myself.

The men grabbed more beers, baseball bats and balls after the feast ended. They headed downhill from the pavilion to a softball diamond. The women stayed back to clean up and complain about their husbands. The kids followed after their dads and stood near the backstop to await team assignments. The uncles divvied up the kids bam-bam-bam then told us the most important rule of all: if a batted ball knocked over a beer bottle, the hitter was out.

Uncle Carl like to chatter at the kids when they came up to bat. He yelled, “You swing like an old washerwoman” after I took a cut and fouled off a pitch. I managed to punch a dribbler up the middle, but Uncle Jerry scooped it up and threw me out. Uncle Carl razzed me as I trotted back to the sideline. “You got lead in your pants!”

Older Cousin Mike slashed a burner to shortstop. Carl made an awkward stab at the ball and looked more interested in shielding himself than catching the grounder. Uncle glared at me when I yelled “No glove!” “Error!” I jeered as he returned to his position. Dad gave me a sharp look. I shut up.

Uncle Carl came up to bat the next inning. Dad’s pitch arced high and came straight down over the plate. Carl flailed at it. He lunged at the second, struck out on the third. Only little kids struck out hitting slow pitch. Dad turned and gave me a warning look while Carl retreated. I didn’t say anything as Uncle had already demonstrated he was the one who swung like a washerwoman.

My team lost. A beer-bottle-out was made. I caught a fly ball in left field but never got on base. We trudged hot and tired back up the hill. The kids hit the coolers for sodas and raided the snack table for chips and pretzels. Hunks of sliced watermelon waited on soggy paper plates.

The aunts and uncles ate, drank, talked and smoked as the sun dipped lower in the west. Mosquitos and fireflies appeared, and little kids chased flying, glowing specks in and out of the lengthening tree shadows.

We packed up and said our goodbyes. The air felt cool blowing into the back seat of our Dodge sedan as we drove home, and I wanted to doze. But every bump jolted the sodden lump in my belly.

Climb the Stairs

Climb the Stairs, oil/canvas, 4×2′

I’m nearly done working on a painting called, “Climb the Stairs”. An unpleasant event inspired the layered images. As I glaze, scumble and brush toward completion, uninvited emotions come up from behind, tap me on the shoulder and say “hi”. Pain and anxiety intrude most frequently. Anger, associated bad memories and bitterness pile on and compound my difficulties.

I thought that working through this subject would serve as an exorcism, that the sting would diminish as I came to terms with my history. I realize now that this memory is a channel to more trouble. I’ve also concluded that there’s not much chance of off-loading. This negative crud has been hard-wired into the core.

But better things have come to me over the years. They’ve too have made indelible impressions. I’ve had a fortunate life for the most part and am grateful. Perhaps I’ll focus on good memories in subsequent paintings. The ugliness will always be there, but I don’t have to encourage it to take over. It’s only one small part of the picture.

Homecoming

Perhaps I’ll find balance one day and come to a peaceful reconciliation with my life in its entirety. But the next painting will have to have at least one puppy. And some butterflies. Can’t rule out flowers.

Escape From East Berlin

Hans: Escape From East Berlin (color pencil)

Alapocas Friends Meeting, 1986

Hans sat back in his chair and answered a question from a friend: “Oh, I haven’t been here for the last two weeks because I had stents inserted into two cardiac arteries. I felt tired all the time and noticed that I got winded even when walking up a little hill. The doctors told me that I had blockages, and the next day I went to the hospital.”

A gray haired woman queried, “Why didn’t you let us know?”

Hans said, “Well, it happened so fast, and I didn’t think that anyone here could help. And my housekeeper brought me food after I got out of the hospital. I was fine.”

Weeks later Hans told us a bit about his history: “I grew up in Germany and lived in Berlin near the end of the war. Oh, yah, I was a Hitler Youth. We all were in the Hitler Youth. No one gave us a choice, and we knew better than to question our orders…We hid in cellars and had nothing to eat or drink when the Russians came. I got work after the fall of Berlin with a mechanic who beat me when he felt like it. Sometimes I worked too slowly, and sometimes I made mistakes. Sometimes he got drunk and wanted to hit someone, and I was the nearest. We could travel from East Berlin to West on the commuter trains, and one day I heard that they were starting to build a wall to keep East Germans from escaping to the West. I decided that I had to go but didn’t tell anyone. I packed a school bag with a book and an apple and got onto a train. I had a few marks in my pocket. I told the conductor a story about why I planned to visit West Berlin, and border agents went through the cars to check identification cards when we neared the outskirts of West Berlin. My heart thumped in my chest, and I was sure that they would pull me off the train. The secret police could make people disappear. The agent studied my cards and gave me a hard look, but then he handed them back and passed down the aisle.”

“I came to the United States in the mid sixties. A Quaker couple sponsored me. They advised me on colleges and helped me win a scholarship to MIT. I did well enough to graduate and found a job here in Wilmington working for Dupont. So here I am.”

Hans crossed his long legs and gave us a weary smile.

The In-Betweens

Ohio leans hard enough against Pennsylvania to feel like a way station between the East Coast and the Midwestern corn belt. It’s rural and industrial (or used to be), progressive in urban centers and conservative in farm towns. Either/or, neither/nor.

When I return to Dayton I often get the feeling that I’m caught in the in-betweens. No one and no place is definitely one thing or another. As soon as I start making assumptions, I’m surprised to find their contradictions.

And I’m reminded of how it felt to be an adolescent, of hoping for and dreading the future, of knowing the things I wanted from life without knowing how to get them. I couldn’t stay a child when everything around and within pushed me into adulthood, but resented having no clear map for the journey forward.

I once became acutely depressed in my early twenties. I’d been trying out a semi-bohemian lifestyle of working at a grunt job while painting late at night. I burned the candle at both ends to see how that felt, but discovered that I had no enduring desire to drive myself into an early grave for the sake of ART. I decided to move back home and finish college, but the prospect of making the transition to a more normal life gave me a sense that old dreams had drifted away before new ones had arrived. Numbness set in as I began to close my studio and pack, and I remember that my lowest point came when I found myself watching back to back re-runs of “The Love Boat”. I couldn’t tear myself away from the reassuring spectacle of ordinary folks finding happy endings.

I suffered through another “in-between” during my first wife’s pregnancy. We’d agreed that I would stay home and take care of the baby while Judy pursued her career as a biological researcher. I’d never even babysat before and felt overwhelmed by the looming responsibilities. Judy gave me books to read, but I never picked them up. I told myself that I’d figure things out as I went along, but avoidance was my real disincentive. Annie, of course, came along anyway, and I did manage to learn how to care for her. And while I struggled with new mental and physical challenges (lack of sleep, out of balance back from walking with baby on one shoulder, bewilderment from the realization that my life no longer belonged to me), I still felt more comfortable with the actual struggle than with waiting for its arrival.

Now I’ve entered another transitional period involving religion. I became allergic to traditional Christianity in my teens when a nun assured me that “my soul would be lost” if I didn’t attend the local Catholic high school. I realized that her concern centered less upon my spiritual welfare and more upon exerting control over one of her minions. I’ve recently begun attending a Presbyterian church, and the kind influence of the pastor has moved me in the direction of renewing my faith. This sounds positive, but I’m left with that same old in-between feeling. Cynicism has become comfortable and confirmed in news reports about the Catholic Church. But I’ve discovered a group of people making a sincere effort to live in faith and feel drawn to join them. This feels odd after all these years…

I’d ask you to pray for me, but that sounds hypocritical. Maybe folks could meditate in my general direction, and we’ll see how this works out.

Quaker Meeting: “I feel the presence of God descending.”

Alapocas Friends Meeting, graphite.

Judy and I sat on padded, upright chairs in a school library. We had joined six other people to form a circle in the dimly lit room. Some stared at the floor; others closed their eyes and frowned; one older man gently snored. The grandfather clock on a near wall ticked, and branches occasionally scraped against the windows.

A fellow next to me said, “I feel the presence of God descending upon us.” I felt nothing but boredom and an urge to massage my neck. I saw that his face had settled into a look of peace as if his mind had become immersed in a field of joy.

I envied the man and wondered if going to a Quaker meeting had been a mistake. My spiritual life hadn’t advanced far enough to give me a sense God in any form. Was I qualified to worship with them? Then I decided that the man’s declaration was evidence of a self-induced delusion.

I went back the next week, however, and sat in the circle. I stared at a rhombus of light on the carpet in front of me. Dick snored and the clock ticked. A sparrow chirped in the bushes outside the window. I started to nod off.

Then a sensation of falling deeper into the silence made me close my eyes. A loving, still, peaceful presence filled my mind. I could recall nothing like this from my short time of practicing meditation. I wondered, “Is this God?”

Ducklings at the Dam

My wife and I moved to Wilmington, Delaware six months after our wedding. Judy worked at Dupont’s Experimental Station. Armed guards at the entrance only raised the gate after closely inspecting employee IDs. They also conducted spot searches of cars leaving the grounds. A tall fence topped by barbed wire surrounded the compound of brick buildings. White precipitates billowed out of tall chimneys and fell in soft flakes like snow. The company posted “No Smoking” signs everywhere–flammable and explosive experiments were underway.

Angry, status obsessed and pointlessly aggressive people dominated the city, and hostile encounters while driving, shopping, and dealing with service desk clerks became part of our weekly routine. Judy and I escaped whenever possible to a nature preserve or park.

We drove one day to a strip of woods on the outskirts of town. The Brandywine River divided the park in half, and we found a spot to rest along a bank near the edge of a low dam. A flock of ducks escorted a small group of ducklings as they floated down the stream toward us. They came to a stop at the edge of the dam.

The ducks and drakes dipped over one by one, fell two feet, disappeared underwater, and popped up four feet downstream. They turned to the ducklings, flapped their wings and quacked. “Follow us!” they seemed to say.

Four out of the five ducklings complied. They hesitated, swam back and forth along the edge, but soon took the plunge. But one couldn’t muster enough courage. He swam in circles near the edge, came close to taking the dive, but backed off at the last second each time.

The flock squawked, quacked and flapped at the lone duckling, but Junior wanted no part. One duck flew back, demonstrated the task once more, but the stubborn duckling refused to budge.

The ducks and drakes resorted to tough love: they turned their backs on the last duckling and swam downriver. Junior swam in faster and faster circles as the flock drew farther and farther away. When fear of abandonment exceeded fear of drowning, he finally tipped over the edge.

When he resurfaced, he found himself once again in good company. The flock rushed back to greet him with quacks and wing flaps, and the little guy swam along with his head held high as they resumed their journey down the Brandywine River.

Judy left Dupont a year later and took a post doc position at Penn State. I stayed in Delaware to finish my second year of grad school. We met on weekends and phoned every day. Our acquaintances warned us that our marriage would suffer from the separation, but we took the risk and did our best.

We faced many tough decisions in the next few years and sometimes hesitated before making a move. But we knew in the end that there are times when we had to take a plunge while hoping that we would pop up safe and sound on the other side.

Judy and I made difficult decisions over the next few years. We chose to spend nine months apart while I finished my degree. We began a family during uncertain financial times. We bought a house before Judy had qualified for tenure as a professor at Rollins College. We knew the risks and the