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Random musings on a writer's life & times, with occasional input from acquaintances

 

Saturday, August 13, 2005

 
Reading Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, I ran across a passage in which he describes alumni returning to a small college town and inevitably “thinking the best, the very best, of every last thing that had ever befallen them on these streets.”

I have reached the stage in life where I can look back somewhat nostalgically on my days as a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, but I certainly don’t find myself “thinking the best, the very best, of every last thing” that befell me there. I remember the heavy studyload, the occasional boring course (always a required one), the more-than-occasional prima donna professor who relished belittling pupils, the six annual months of slogging to class through relentless rain. Sure, I remember the triumph of graduation day (I was the first in my extended family to earn a college degree), the rah-rah of Duck basketball games at funky old MacArthur Court, the rush of intellectual adrenaline at encountering a professor like Paul Dull, who really knew his stuff (History of the Far East in Modern Times, in Dull’s case) and could make you understand and appreciate it. But when I reflect on my UO days, my nostalgia always has an ambivalent, bittersweet tinge. There was fun, but there was also drudgery. There was mental stimulation, but there was also boredom.

Almost always, when I fall to contemplating my time as a college undergraduate, my mind drifts back to a specific moment in the autumn of my freshman year. That moment seems to symbolize and encapsulate a great deal of my UO experience.

It was late November, past Thanksgiving break but not quite finals week (two milestones in a college student’s life). I needed information to write a term paper for my History of Western Civilization class, so after dinner I walked from my dorm to the campus library, where I spent hours trekking back and forth between the card catalogue and the dimly lit, faintly spooky “stacks” where tall shelves of dusty, seldom-used books were stashed. At eleven o’clock the library closed, so I had to leave.

I headed back to my dorm, half a dozen hefty library books atop a canvas notebook propped against my hip. Rain had fallen much of the day, so streets glistened with moisture. Random clumps of soggy-slick autumn leaves made sidewalks treacherous, especially in the dark. My breath plumed before me in the night air.

As I walked past the PE building north of Mac Court, I glanced left and the gaudy expanse of lit windows stretching away into the distance captured my eyes. This was dorm complex country, the east edge of the campus, where herds of a freshmen and a few upperclassmen lived in row after row of brick buildings, each broken up into dozens of tiny rooms containing two beds, two desks and a large plate glass window. Each window seemed lit cheerily from within on this cold, dark night. I halted on the sidewalk, musing.

I had graduated from high school in Cottage Grove, Oregon, a town with 4,500 residents. The University of Oregon enrolled 9,600 students my freshman year. Almost twice as many people attended the UO as lived in my whole home town. Most of those 9,600 people probably were smarter than me, more energetic than me, tougher in the crunch than me -- whether said crunch was surviving final exams or scaring up tuition money. And most of those people seemed to be out there behind those warmly lit windows, confidently going about their educational business.

Rarely have I felt so alone. What am I doing here? I asked myself. I will never fish an intelligible term paper from the fifty pounds of musty books on my hip. I will never out-think enough classmates to earn passing marks on the heinous grading curve. I will never fit in with people whose lit dorm windows radiate such well-being. I considered continuing to walk, just ditching the library books in some bush and lurching along until I reached the city bus depot, where I could hop a Greyhound to nowhere.

Except I didn’t have money for a bus ticket. And I would be embarrassed if I chickened out and quit school. And my Mom would be real mad. And I would never survive a career pulling on the green chain at a lumber mill, not with my puniness, clumsiness and mechanical aptitude (or lack thereof). And I would never become a Washington correspondent or a Newsweek columnist or a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

So I stayed. I returned to my dorm, where I recently had been moved in with a football player because I tried to hurl my former roommate’s ham radio out a window and the football player woke up our resident adviser at two a.m. by loudly singing “Be True To Your School” while helping his former roommate dam the drains of the shower room to create a swimming pool. I wrote my paper, got a B in Western Civ, pressed on with an educational career that remains to this day a source of ambivalence.



Thursday, August 11, 2005

 
Hey! I ran across these quotes from Oscar Wilde, and I just couldn't resist sharing them. The novelist/playwright/man-about-London may have ended up committing social hara-kiri with his own gay blade, but he certainly cut to the heart of many matters with his words. Such as:

"It is what you read when you don't have to that determines what you will be when you can't help it."

"Seriousness is the only refuge of the shallow."

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

"He hadn't a single redeeming vice."

"Popularity is the one insult I have never suffered."

"There is luxury in self reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel no one else has a right to blame us."

"Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer."

"Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught."

"I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world."

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

"I dislike arguments of any kind. They are always vulgar, and often convincing."

"The well bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves."

AND MOST TO THE POINT, CONSIDERING THE FOREGOING:

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit"





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