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In July 2014, I was spending my third straight summer in Hanover. I was working as a teaching assistant for “Classics 4,” helping with a digital mapping project in the art history department, editing an educational website’s mythology curriculum, kicking off research on my thesis and avoiding the contemplation of the spectre of adulthood which had by this point fully sunk its teeth into my unrelenting existence.
“If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” — “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986)
Of all the genres of music trending among the kids these days, it’s hip-hop and rap that present themselves as the most consistently engaged in enigmatic epistemic claims. “You know what it is,” incants Wiz Khalifa on his celebrated track “Black and Yellow.” “This is a thousand dollar cup of lean,” says Rocko, “U.O.E.N.O it.” And T.I.: “Yeah, you know they call me T.I., but you don’t know me!”
A friend of mine recently shared a theory of his with me that a better outcome of World War I would have ended with the German army successfully taking Paris and stopping right there. Paris, he explained, is an unreal city, but it is unfortunately full of French people who are lazy and rude. If we could have the best of both worlds — that is, all the resplendent French art and architecture but populated and governed by friendly and efficient Germans — that’d be a place worth staking out for one’s expatriate days. Since I know little about history or the character of the contemporary French, I have to stay neutral with respect to this theory’s credibility. Yet one point of credit that I’ve come across in the past week seems to vindicate the French at least a pinch in my esteem.
At some point this weekend, I overheard Mikayla Delores-Burt — one of my associates — stumble over the last word of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s most famous line with hilarious results: “I like big butts, and I cannot die.” One can only dream up the sort of Sophoclean figure who would have cause to utter this tragic complaint, struck with the affliction of an all-consuming predilection for engorged booty, protracted through the ages by immortality — a fate to rival that of Tithonus no doubt. Alternatively, one can imagine Zeus slamming Heinekens with Ares after he’d just finished canoodling Io or Europa or any other of his many mortal maiden conquests, high-fiving and slurring, “Bro! You already know about me, bro. I like big butts, and I cannot die. Let’s go father some improbable monsters with lots of different animal parts and drop them into Thebes. How about it ya jamoke?”
In her April 22 opinion column, “Difficult To Recognize,” Michelle Gil ’16 laments the dismal state into which the College has slowly sunken in the past three years -— since the halcyon era of her senior-year college applications, the Dartmouth Outing Club’s First-Year Trips and orientation. A school that enchanted incoming members of the classes of 2015 and 2016 seems to have grown odious and gangrene as of late, as the talons of administrators lock in tighter on the throat of the Greek system, Dartmouth Dining Services oppresses students with pharaonic cruelty through five-dollar Odwallas and three-dollar cookies and Alpha Delta, the greatest fraternity in the history of the college — perhaps even the universe — falls like the last stronghold of the Roman Empire to the foreign powers of mainstream media and public image. Like the proverbial frogs who died in water brought slowly to a boil, we hesitated to speak up for ourselves with each passing term, watching things get worse and worse from behind the rim of a Keystone can.
I’m on the Dartmouth Coach, headed to Rhode Island to turn up and see Waka Flocka Flame. Just up and to the right of me, a couple of what I can only suppose are West Lebanon highschoolers sit together, canoodling with tremendous intensity. This would not perturb me in normal circumstances, great lover of love that I am, except that the only love I love is love exercised in good taste. This activity, which has persisted uninterrupted through the 10 minutes I have spent flipping between writing this paragraph and looking up synonyms for revolting, has nothing lovely to it at all. I cannot see the girl involved, but the angle at which she has positioned herself leaves the neon pink soles of her sneakers pointed straight up at the ceiling. The laces of her shoes are immaculate white and tied in perfect symmetry. They look like they just came out of the box. Either they did, or she is one of the people who puts a lot of effort into keeping her punk-style shoes in a state of extreme cleanliness, a habit I regard with extreme suspicion. The boy involved, whose bowl cut is perhaps even cleaner than his partner’s shoestrings, is wearing a large shirt with the words “TO BE CONTINUED” printed on the back. I am having difficulty discerning what that phrase could signify in the context of clothing.
I went to a really good high school. I know this because when I look up my high school on any of the websites that rank high schools and say which ones are the best, these websites all agree my high school is one of the best. Statistics and algorithms don’t lie. I know this because I don’t understand how statistics or algorithms work, and — as life has repeatedly impressed upon me — anything I don’t understand is probably smarter than me and also probably true.
Here’s a little pip of a life update: Over the break, I had the opportunity to have my eyes retested since, to me at least, my vision had deteriorated enough in the harsh palms of winter so as to render everything I saw like one of Monet’s haystacks. Without full-time glasses, my world is a soft canvas of textless fuzz, disturbed only by general motions from left to right and right to left. People come in and out of view as subtly as the drifting of clouds, suggesting, yet never forcing, a sense of definite form.
A certain author who’s been the focus of a good deal of my attention over the past few years has a habit of writing that he can feel his friends’ presence by his side when reading the letters they send him. This resonates with me since this practice of writing long, circumambulatory letters is not unfamiliar to me. I think my choice to write long emails to my friends while they were in Greece and Paris and South Africa gave rise to some of the best elements of my “Dartmouth Experience.” There was also a time when I wrote long letters back and forth with others that were of a somewhat different character — less biographical exposition, more violent swinging from intensive philosophical considerations into outrageous declarations of love or persnickety argumentation over contrived, exotic forms of irony and lots of title-dropping. I deleted them all as part of an ill-conceived damnatio memoriae omniae campaign. I regret that. If I believe in a soul at all, then all my writing constitutes my very soul. I love whenever I find any of it that I happened to save or something that survived. My memory of what it was like to be me in 2004 or 2009 or even 2012 is in thistly tatters. I have so little I could not even rub it between my fingers. The rest has fallen into the bottomless crater of death.
My roommate at the Delaware Advanced Institute of Unreality Studies was a studio art major named Tom J. Jane. Jane was big on cubes, and most of his work consisted of gluing large cubes of cement or wood or glass together. They always had names like “Oneiric” or “Prolepsis” or “Vocabulary.” He dressed with a lot of bright reds and blues, and though I’d always meant to ask him why, I never did. He had this thing he used to say — usually to girls at parties — about how he had known since he was a child how he’d disappear. When he found what he “knew in his soul to be the biggest, most beautiful thing in the world,” he would say, he’d catch the first plane out to North Dakota and live in a hut or a cave and never speak to anyone again. I always shrugged this off as something of a conceited pick-up line — that is until some circulating social media buzz alerted me: Jane was gone. He’d been in Florence, helping out at a friend’s gallery. Jane encountered the Duomo cathedral stumbling home frog-drunk one night, lit up in curtains of bone-white moonlight. That was it.
I’ve always illustrated my personal taxonomy of jerks with the example of the equestrian statue. The first tier of jerks — i.e. people who are not jerks at all — will simply holler, “Hey, look at that cool statue of a fellow riding a horse!” At this point there’s likely some dude who pipes up with the following factoid: “Did you guys know that if you look at an equestrian statue, you can tell how its rider died by looking at how many of its legs are raised in the air?”
For some time now it has been a convention — almost an obligation — among the sensitive, narcissistic literary types (of whom I am an unabashed member) to quote certain poems, even certain lines, in a tactic of romance. The aim is the flattery and self-endearment to some obscure object of desire. That object, as often as not a girl of similar pretentious and sensitive disposition, will not necessarily know that E.E. Cummings line, “No one, not even the rain, has such small hands.” They may not be familiar with the scene from “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) in which the bookish, bespectacled and sensitive Michael Cain marks out that exact line for recommendation to the titular sensitive and world-worn woman whom he covertly adores.
“Are you going to FoCo?” This question, the most phatic bit of verbiage, is laden with history and innuendo that someone outside of Dartmouth’s cultural cell could never understand and about which someone within forgets to think. We learn our culture so incrementally that we cannot see ourselves changing. No sudden moment of skin-shedding metamorphosis takes place when we hop off the Coach and into the new world of college. Instead, we become Men and Women of Dartmouth the way a scab grows — invisibly. It becomes a fact of our existence, beyond question.
Last Friday night, I was strolling home from the Nugget Theater where I’d just taken in “American Sniper” (2014). I was a little underdressed, so my timbers were shivering a bit, and my head was lit with a myriad of ethical considerations provoked by the film I’d just seen. What are the allowances and concessions we must make to those who kill for their country’s security? Is sniping a dirty mode of warfare? Did the film-makers deliberately dehumanize the Iraqi and snipers in order to swerve off the tines of moral relativism? How has our culture grown to recognize and understand the impact of returning soldiers upon families since Aeschylus wrote Agamemnon?
I know there’s some Japanese show where they put large, exotic insects in glass jars in order to induce fights between them — this is the kind of thing some people find entertaining. I don’t find as much entertainment value in the spectacle, but I know how it feels to be an insect like that, trapped in others’ personal space. Unlike a certain peer institution of ours located in Connecticut, Dartmouth is totally without walls. But “stone walls do not a prison make.” Like the cockroach pawing frantically at the glass, fighting against a barrier it cannot even understand, so I feel on some nights, like I’ve been swaddled in invisible bonds to the core of this place. I twist my neck and wince to avoid the feeling of so much eye contact and breath down my neck. Even when I’m home on breaks I don’t feel released, but like I’ve just picked up my ankle chain and dragged it hundreds of miles down to Texas — a single tug from its keepers at the other end could wrench me to my knees. It is peculiar how we meet and re-meet people. It is also peculiar how we remember and re-remember them. Freshman year, I’m at the Avicii concert, spangled in neon, but just not pumped up enough to feel fun. Briefly I see a girl whose name I know from Facebook. I snap some judgments, wonder whether I could or should ask her to dance, disappoint myself and choose not to. A meaningless event. Well over a year later I get a blitz two-feet-long in all blue text from this same human about something that I had written, a blitz that launched over a year of meaningful and wonderful and painful events. I remember so well the first time I ever saw her. Why? Another time I’m distraught in a huge graveyard in Berlin, trying to disinfect myself of memories of something different altogether. I’m a quarter of the way across the world, but the cutting loop of Hanover is still around my waist. I’m sitting for hours in front of hundreds of graves of Italian boys who were killed at my age. I’m returning to Dartmouth the next term, straight to the center of the glass jar to see all the people I want to see yet petrified at the almost certain eventuality that I’ll see one person. In the course of one evening, a name you hear tossed around becomes a person, then by morning your entire world, and after many sprains and snaps and lacerations, back to a name. Even that name can’t be flattened down dead — it tugs too. It resists death with as much aching fortitude as the roach in the jar. A thrashed memory of love that felt true at the time lies in the dark on the floor of the mind, still twitching horribly. At FoCo I’m eating alone and a friend walks by. “Alex, look at this,” I say as I hand him my phone and he thumbs through a couple harsh texts. “I guess this is just like, really over.” “Nah,” he laughs. “It’s never over.” “But I want it to be.” I actually, honestly, pathetically sent the following quotation in an email once, seized from a very sad, very good book. It was about how months of silence was not working to stamp out how violently haunted I continued to feel by my memories: “I caught him with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.” No one ever falls out of love, and no one ever leaves your life. You are pierced through with hook after hook, all tied to all the people you trusted enough to puncture you, make you vulnerable. But vulnerability is irreversible. At such a small school, with tall psychic walls that keep us in such close quarters, people will enter and re-enter your life no matter how far you retreat into the inner citadel. They will tug open closed wounds in ways that can feel masochistically ecstatic. You get older as you hurt and are hurt by more people. One by one, the worst days of your life drop from the high, imperceptible branches of the hypothetical future down onto lawn around you to rot, never to be completely washed away. This is how life is worse than prison. An inmate knows that iron bars and cinder blocks confine him in only a material sense — for what human hands can make, human hands can break. Yet we are fastened to our past in a chain gang with everyone we’ve loved and there is no escape, no matter how we cry and claw at it. A bell cannot be unrung. You cannot take back a kiss. Happiness begs that we give up and learn to feel affection for the stinking, unkillable albatrosses that swing around our necks. Or else die young.
For the purpose of diverting readerly ire from the batch of complaints I am about to make, I should confess that I am not an anthropologist. I am also not a sociologist, meteorologist, historian, geologist or meteorologist. In light of these deficiencies, I suppose a lot of this will come across as ignorant riffing on a rather pedestrian pet peeve. All the same, as I gaze about the sylvan rim of the Upper Valley, filled with evergreens and the harsh vanilla blanket of winter, I am terrifically and genuinely confused why anyone would willingly choose to reside here. As an undomesticated Texan, I am partial to sunlight, dust, mesquite, grackles and a clear blue sky. This is the environment in which emotions can soar and dreams can blossom. There a young, earnest bumpkin — unadulterated by the vicissitudes of urbanity and civilization — can find contentment in his lazy appreciation of life’s empyrean beauty.
As a veteran whiner, I’ve found it useful over the years to get deep inside the object of my complaints. With due diligence, I research information that permits me to locate the tenderest zone of the person or institution I want to lambast, and there lay the jackhammer tip of my pen. Slurs and lies just don’t wound the way facts do.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the beloved children’s program “The Magic School Bus,” in which a batty school teacher leads a group of intrepid elementary school students on wacky adventures through time and space, learning a broad array of facts about the natural world along the way. Each of these little nerds has a distinct personality — the black girl is sassy, the ginger Jew is a weakling and the Italian-American boy is the natural leader of the bunch. All these neat character-types did a fantastic job force-feeding a generation of pre-adolescent viewers a host of useful prejudices by which to exclude and exalt one another in their mature years — but what did they do to help them learn about themselves?
On Oct. 24, the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault released recommendations based on feedback from its symposium on sexual assault and information gathered from students at various “town hall” meetings. The seventh item under the “prevention” heading recommends a ban of the notorious website Bored at Baker, with the justification that “Bored@Baker sends a message of intolerance of communities, online and otherwise, that perpetuate cyberbullying and violence by explicitly targeting individuals and identities notably women, people of color and LGBTQIA. SPCSA recommends banning Bored@Baker from Dartmouth’s sever [sic].”