Tuesday, January 03, 2006


January 1999

The first thing I did when I got back to campus was to tack an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper to the inside of my bedroom door with the following message printed in
36 point Impact font:

You are here to educate yourself

intellectually, physically, and emotionally!

While my roommate and best friend at the time just nodded and went back to his pre-med track biology course reading, Stephen, the good-looking 20 year old who was one of the nominal counselor/advisors for our co-op dorm, took a different tack. “Umm, don’t you think some people might find that a bit intimidating?” His soft chocolate eyes were dashed pink from the bong hits we’d been taking in my dorm room. Getting high had not exactly been part of the “Concentrate!” game plan, but before I took the first drag I’d probably justified it under the “emotionally” category of the sign. Granted that category left a lot of wiggle room, but it was my sign’s attitude that mattered, not its specific wording. I don’t remember my reply to Stephen (my marijuana-ed head was trying to snap itself from the Neil Young riffs tangled in my frontal lobe), but I think I mumbled something about not wanting to waste my time.

Stephen and I were some of the few still holed up on campus during the January self-study “Winter Term”, the few and the weird who enjoyed spending a few weeks amid the great gray collegiate buildings huddled like dying dinosaurs in the snow drifts. The ice age never really ended, it just decided to retire to the North Pole, commuting down to Ohio every December to spend a few months pummeling the citizenry and remembering the good old days. There was something raw, monkish and intellectually sexy about toughing it out on the ice bound campus, scarf wrapped faces, armfuls of books trudged along stone paths slick with ice and studded with footprints.

My game plan for the month was both concrete and maddeningly vague. I had about two dozen hardbound books out from the library, having basically grabbed anything thick and ponderous looking. Thomas Pynchon, histories of American business and the Ottoman Empire, feminist film criticism, Marxist music history, Camus, Sartre, Marx, Engels, Heidegger, all complaining about something, biographies of Mahler and Debussy, dissertations on Chinese calligraphy, Japanese prints, Surrealism, Modernism, Post-Modernism, Post-Post Modernism... Anything that looked intellectual, heavy, packed with vitamins.

For the physical part of my manifesto I set aside an hour before dinner when I would bundle up and shiver to the far side of campus to the indoor track clocking my times on 35 consecutive laps, trying to keep each one to a nice flat, round sixty seconds. Running was the one sport I’d ever felt aptitude for; given my hopelessness with footballs, basketballs, table tennis racquets and baseball bats, running was pretty straightforward. The more you put into it the better you did. I remember once watching a marathon on TV where the announcer talked about the thousands of vertical yards traveled by a head that bobbed too much, so I tried to keep my pace forward and not up and down. Other than that it was close your eyes and go.

The emotional part was by far the vaguest condition in this contract with myself, and in hindsight the weirdest as well. This project, lacking a specific goal was more of a life overhaul than approach to any one goal. The point, of course, was that I had this furious, monkish to be intellectual without a specific outlet for it. Basically I was taking the elements of my life up to that point, scraping away the dust and grit that had collected around them and ramping up the energy by a level of two or three. I was hoping my outer flesh would burn away to reveal a raw lean Rimbaud underneath mind glimmering in a kind of literary nirvana.

It also encompassed my rather fuzzy ambitions to get myself a girlfriend.


The dorm I lived in that January was a three story brick boarding house with a broad concrete porch, dull brass doorknobs for every room and a labyrinth of damp rooms in the basement. The newer dorms on campus looked like grubby alpine green legos that had been scrounged from the bottom of the bin and snapped onto free space in the center of campus, but my first year dorm seemed to squat on the mushy Ohio soil, it’s bulk pressing out in every direction. Its rooms were known as “the shoeboxes”, stacked along the narrow corridors and hacked into odd shapes to cram them all in. Each one had a fat white radiator that was plopped awkwardly against the wall and sat there burping all winter. When I moved in it was like a third roommate that had arrived first; it sat parked right between the windows as we tried to maneuver our college issued dressers and bed frames around its stubborn little bulk. (Asshole.)

Each radiator was heated by a grumpy pre-war boiler that lived in a damp concrete cell in the basement. One particularly frigid day that January it groaned and died, the greedy Ohio winter drinking up the heat and leaving our rooms stark and icy. The administration woke up from hibernation and scurried to find us temporary shelter in unused rooms around campus.

I was given a six by twelve foot single occupancy cell in the “East” dorm, named not for a college benefactor but for the side of campus it lay on. To birds and airline passengers passing overhead it would glide along as an upper case E, but the design was utilitarian, not clever. It was built during the 60’s, when dormitory design was primarily based around repressing student takeovers of college facilities: an E shape meant plenty of entrances and exits for riot cops to charge and a minimum of public gathering spaces. This prison style design concept continued to the rooms, where the concrete block walls were glazed dull white. My room had (1) desk, (1) frame bed and mattress, (1) dresser with (3) drawers, the faintest whiff of disinfectant and looked like a blank sheet of printer paper. I loaded the desk with books and my bulky 1998 laptop, piled the bed with winter blankets and left the older newspapers fluttering at the bottom of the dresser drawers. Even after the central heating was fixed I kept the place for three more weeks as my office, a stark little temple to my new religion of “Concentrate!”


I woke up every morning with a pin under my heart, pricking me out of the covers to shuffle over to the laptop and try to tap out the last wisps of my dreams into black-and-white rows on an LCD screen. Once I reached a dead end I'd dive into the books. It probably would have been healthier or more productive to have an overall plan, but I would plunge into the stinging cold water of the books with my eyes closed, thrash around for a few hours and come up for air only around lunch time.

After a quick lunch at the dining hall I'd repeat for a couple of hours and then head to the music library to immerse myself in Mahler symphonies, one after the other in numerical sequence. If anything their currents were stronger, their waters darker than the stupidly thick novels I was attempting. I would doze at the listening station, score spread in front of me on the desk, pages and overleafs threatening to tumble to the floor. Melodies tumbled and cascaded through waves of chords, time signatures shifting, occasionally the whole thing surging to a right angle at a key change. I was as lost here as anywhere else, stumbling out of the library at closing time, bleary and a bit dizzy. Thirty five laps around the track, dinner, then back to the cell to face off against the laptop and wrestle with my writing.

Out of that long month I can barely recall a single one of those books I read or the torturous stories and essays that I agonized over. I had hoped that by keeping up a rigorous “artistic” pattern that inspiration and goals would rise and wait bobbing on the surface for me to swing by and pick them up. I would keep myself in a state of constant awareness: voracious, trained, and alert for inspiration. The only thing my project was lacking (besides a specific goal), was a sense of humor. I was a grim little bastard, running around smacking my head against the heaviest books I could find without the faintest idea why I was doing it.

By the end of the month my monkish enthusiasm had dribbled out and I slumped back to my original building on the other side of campus. While I had been howling around a dark little room in the riot proof walls of East the other folks in my dorm had been quietly pursuing projects in the day and then curling under blankets to smoke grass, play hearts and watch 80’s high school flicks in the evening. After my experiments in isolation I realized this was probably the only sane response to an Ohio winter, snuggling in to watch Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure with a joint and half a dozen other bodies squirming and tingling with the weird head rush of being nineteen and away from home.


quaisi said...

I enjoyed reading that post

Maddy said...

Boy did that resonate. Spending winter break on a college campus above the 40th parallel always sounds like a good idea at the time, especially with lots of books and thoughts and creative ambitions, and then it turns out cold and lonely as hell. Like, oh yeah, this is cozy, this is productive, this is way pretentious but I'm totally in earnest--no wait, this is miserable.

However, it's a fantasy I'm not ready to abandon--just to shelve for a while, until I figure out how to do it right. Then I'll move back to my old room (after kicking out its current occupant, with the force of all that calm authority I've developed over the years) and proceed to let my inner monk run free.

Are you sure you can't remember any of the books you read? You must have gotten more out of it that you're fessing up to. Some of it felt good, didn't it. Didn't it?

Jamie said...

Thanks for the warm comments guys. I've actually had this post sitting around unpublished for a while, kept on picking at certain sentences, feeling completely unsatisfied. Eventually I just gave up and posted it, and left it at that. Having reread it just now I feel a little better about it, and your comments helped. Thanks again!

PS Maddy. Actually, no exaggeration, I can barely remember what books they were. The examples I gave of "Histories of the Ottoman Empire", etc. was actually made up. I checked out some of those books but I'm not sure if it was that winter or not.

Did I enjoy it? Yeah, parts of it I'm sure, I was just so incredibly serious I hardly let myself enjoy it. Anyway, thanks again!