OCD behavior

School Daze 2: Freshman Year at College 1965

School Daze 2

The freshman dormitories on the men’s campus at Duke are on the quadrangle west of the Chapel. They are a long series of structures resembling Gothic row houses; and are arbitrarily divided into sections that are lettered in alphabetic sequence. Contrary to this generic lettering, the upperclassman Independent Houses have proprietary names of identification, like Canterbury, while the Fraternity Houses have the customary Greek nomenclature such as Alpha Tau Epsilon. This seems to emphasize your relative worthlessness as you start your academic career and seems modeled after the nameless rank-less military plebe class at West Point.

When my parents dropped me off in front of my new home, the freshman dormitory simply known as “J House”, then hurriedly unpacked the station wagon, put all my things in my room, and abruptly headed home, I had a panic attack. Although I should have been elated at the arrival of my long anticipated emancipation, instead I felt nothing but instantaneous homesickness.

To make matters worse the dormitory interior was crypt-like with narrow sunless hallways, tiny rooms with narrow windows, and even narrower beds. The two young men expected to co-habit the room, whose parents were trying to save on expenses, could immediately feel a pervading claustrophobically interpersonal angst. The housing was nice looking on the outside but akin to living inside a medieval tomb. In addition I had to bunk with a roommate who had been arbitrarily assigned to me.

He was a nice enough, but a very straight-laced person who was in college under the Reserve Officer Training Commission (ROTC), a factor that required him to wear a Navy uniform most of the time. I suppose it was the natural progression after Boy Scouts and did nothing to help my previously ingrained distain for uniforms.

The good thing was that he spent a lot of time out of the room, which was fine with me. However to this day I do not know if this was because of his ancillary military obligations and studies, because I was giving off unfriendly vibrations, or because of the constant taunting of the dormitory political liberal, Arthur, who in salutation would repeat his last name over and over again making it sound like the croaking of a nocturnal marsh frog.

  • Brrrrent, Brrrrent, Brrrrent.

Freshman dorm relationships in general tend to be a bit like a group of vacationers stuck together on a long tour package. After a lot of random interactive shuffling about, the various personalities sort themselves out, and then cliques form. The absurdity of it all is that even though you are now buddies, if you met the same people on the street or at a cocktail party, you would never even give them the time of day. Eventually the re-sorting evolved and everyone either joined a fraternity or moved into an Independent Dormitory.

But during that first college year, the blend of disparate souls can make for a significant degree of diversity, camaraderie, or interpersonal tension and hostility before it does eventually re- shuffles. Perhaps this accounts for the origins of the “birds of a feather” Fraternal system in the first place. Better to be with an asshole identical to ones self than to be a diametrically opposite asshole who in relative terms is a real asshole. Our dorm was no exception.

Living next to me in a single room was a good-natured carefree soul from Pennsylvania, Doug, who was totally unperturbed by the world as he let everything roll off his back. He was passionate about golf, and despite his lack of a legacy, got into a fraternity simply because of his athleticism.

Across the hallway was a highly neurotic Jewish pre-dental student who could not get going in the morning unless he repeated his bathroom rituals in a predetermined properly correct order. He could easily be tortured by simply placing one of his previously and neatly aligned pairs of shoes out of line, or by moving his toothbrush two inches to the right. One day he actually had a near nervous breakdown when he lost his Mezuzah. It was the first I had ever heard of this uniquely religious good luck charm and its loss caused the small world of our dormitory came to a screeching halt until the item was finally relocated, then once again placed above his doorway, with all of its associated blessings and mystical protections happily restored.

We had to find it or he would still be perseverating to this day:

  • I lost my Mezuzah. I lost my Mezuzah. I lost my Mezuzah. Where’s my Mezuzah?

He eventually joined the small Jewish fraternity that consisted primarily of intellectual nerds, and was never seen by us again; although I subsequently learned he has made a fortune in cable television but not in amalgam dental fillings or in realigning crooked teeth in some glitzy northern New Jersey suburb.

Being Jewish at Duke University may have fulfilled certain admission quotas, but generally speaking, the Jewish students were a targeted minority. Being a northern Catholic with an Italian last name this made me look good by comparison.

Perhaps it was no accident that the Jewish fraternity house, the Tao Epsilon Phi, (The TEPs) was physically adjacent to the football athlete’s Fraternity house, the Alpha Tau Omega (The JOCKs); such that  on many a liquored up Saturday night it would not be infrequent that these frustrated animals would crash through the barrier door in the basement separating the dorms and proceed to use the Jewish “dweebs” as footballs.

That is if they were not first entertaining themselves or their sorority sisters by their unique tradition of group mooning out the windows or  throwing a television set off the dormitory roof and then gleefully screaming as the screen and neon tubes disintegrated as the appliance completely disappeared into a pile of tiny silver dust particles. The authorities would usually turn and look the other way or slap some inconsequential punishment on the cheeky offenders.

Administrative authorities also turned their other cheeks to the jock’s generally poor academic performances and the fact that their sorority sisters wrote most of their term papers. But after all, what is a major University if it does not have an athletic program, even if the athletes themselves do not really go to school, or in order to matriculate will enroll in specially designed classes such as “Citizenship 101” or “Advanced Primitive Tribal Face Painting”

This particular course comes in especially handy for them on football game day when they put that idiotic black paint under their eyes, a ritual ostensibly designed to keep reflected sun glare from bouncing off their mirror-like steroid induced shiny skinned faces and temporarily blinding them.

  • Sorry coach. I flubbed it cause I couldn’t see the ball. I forgot to wear my war paint.

So what if Duke Football at that time ranked consistently in the bottom ten percent of all Division I colleges. Since the team consistently gets pummeled into the gridiron every Fall Saturday afternoon, their tactics and tendencies to beat up on TEPs may have in reality been nothing better than a simple case of Kick the Dog Syndrome. It certainly was not an example of putting the elements of “Citizenship 101” into daily practice 

In general it seems strange that many Division I colleges continue to maintain both football and basketball programs, but that very few seem to excel in both simultaneously. I was told once that it all revolves around solicitation of alumni donations backed up by a perpetual hope that someday, no matter what, the monetary support will bring in a National Championship. Duke football fans will be dead three times over before that ever happens again. 

At Duke, an equally strange curiosity was the fact that there seemed to be an inverse proportion between the size of the athlete and the size of his unusually diminutive girlfriend, which gave rise to our jocular reference to their imagined sexual encounters as being “spinners” or “propeller jobs.” All in all I suppose that is probably better than the imagined sexual implications attached to the fall and spring Fraternity classics known as the “Greek Games.” 

Further down the hall, in J House, lived another Jewish student, Dan, who was the antithesis of the obsessive pre-dental nut case. He rarely studied, eventually flunked out and later enrolled in a smaller college that was easier to survive academically.

His favorite pastime was to have everyone come into his room, turn off the lights, lie back on his bed, then pull up his legs and ignite his farts with a butane cigarette lighter. He could fart at will and we all laughed hysterically as he entertained us with a repetitive flame throwing demonstration that could have made him a comfortable living in any carnival side show: Methane Man: The Human Flame Thrower.

Of course this is not to say that we neither discouraged him nor did we ever think we were not freaky ourselves when we attempted to measure the distance of the flaming eruptions with a ruler. These activities can be lumped into the general classification of: ND-SN-FBS: No Date-Saturday Night-Freshman Boredom Syndrome.  

Because Dan had no problem hanging cartoons up in the dormitory lounge for public review one of his most legendary achievements was to sponsor the first annual “Gross-Out Art Contest,” an event that nearly got him expelled when one of the contestants submitted a picture of Donald Duck giving Jesus Christ a blow-job. He was an advocate of freedom of the press, having taken some inspiration from the radical contemporary author’s Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs who were breaking down the barriers of literary censorship on a national level with books the likes of “Howl” and “Naked Lunch,” while at the same time Bob Dylan was breaking down the barriers of racial segregation by questioning the morals and mores of polite society or centralized government with his music.Dan was also a natural born stand up comedian, who because of not having a car or other monetary means, traveled back and forth to New York by hitch hiking with a handmade placard stating:

Dan F: A laugh a mile

He always got a ride.

 

Dylan

(Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and Allen Ginsberg)

Another standout was the good natured Georgia boy, “Buck”, who had an innate sense of humor, an open curiosity about the world, was always too quick to fall in love, but who also had a tendency to be easily influenced and easily led astray. Sometimes I think the world was simply a little too much for him. At one point he had to temporarily drop out of school when he retrieved his mail, only to find a note written by his parents to this effect:

“Dear son; Had enough, decided to quit, sold the house, moving away, and sorry but now you are on your own. By the way, this also means you get no more money. Pay for school yourself. Love, Mom and Dad.”

He then decided to either sell or to give away all his possessions, as he became a passionate follower of the teachings of the transcendental meditation icon, Maher Baba, who had concurrently been made famous by the Beatles. Although he was only following his own soft, kindly heart, and truly did believe he could make a difference in the world by following the pacifist trail, we all thought Buck was a little crazed with his fascination for the squeaky impish rodent-voiced little Indian prophet.

Even though cultural issues in America were then turning out to be quite troubled, as America’s youth was beginning to turn away from materialism, most of us seemed to be able to smell the phony little rat wrapped up in the white Sari. We were also still a bit mercenary and not quite at the stage where we were about to think twice when we absorbed all of Buck’s cast aside 33 speed records into our own vinyl collections.

As it turned out Buck was but one of the many, including the Beatles, who were hoodwinked into believing that this great teacher was going to reveal the long awaited key to salvation, but who then were equally and horribly disappointed when on his death bed the Baba’s highly anticipated pre-advertised final words of holy revelation were:

  • I was Rani, I was Shiva, I was Krishna, I was Vishnu, I was this one, I was that one. I am also Maher Baba. I will die, but I shall return.

Why should any one who knows anything about Buddhism or Brinkmanship have been disappointed or even remotely surprised at this wondrous, ever so profoundly clever yet fraudulent revelation? After all, if one believes in reincarnation the Baba did not tell a lie, did he?

Sadly, several years ago I heard that Buck had gone on to become a high school teacher who in being well loved by most but apparently not by all in Atlanta, Georgia, was subsequently shot to death one day in class by a disgruntled student. Perhaps his biggest flaw was that he was the kind of person who could never even hurt a fly and that the disgruntled student probably took his offbeat sense of sarcastic humor without the necessary grain of salt.

In dorm life as well as in societal life, as might be expected, there is always an alpha personality that rises to the top and tends to lead the pack. In J House, his name was Arthur, a pre-law student from Trenton New Jersey, who had an insidious ability to insert his views, to make them predominant, and to cast an air of arrogant condescending superiority.

He was extremely intimidating and liked to prey on weaker personalities while attempting to turn them to his point of view, or if he could not, then spent a great deal of time torturing the intended victim until he at least raised a reactive response. Then when all else failed, his final tactic was to simply raise his voice higher than any one who might be trying to propose a countervailing argument.

My ex-wife also liked to use the torture tactic as she consistently misinterpreted peace and quiet as meaning a lack of interest or lost love. Equally confusing was her belief that having a nasty loud argument meant I was actually taking a sincere interest in our relationship.

Art’s political philosophy was inherently to the left side of liberal. He was also far ahead of me intellectually as he had already been versed in literature I had never even heard of, lording over our conversations with ideas and quotations he had extracted from the likes of T.S. Elliot, Ezra Pound, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac; to name few. He also had very broad musical interests, and despite the intimidation factor, was instrumental in elevating my awareness to considerably more expansive horizons than those attached to my insular introverted upbringing.

Finally and ultimately then, there was myself. A nerdy, conservative northern boy, who originally intended nothing more than to go to school, to study hard, to get into medical school, to subsequently have a life and career that would basically run predictably on auto pilot; with a lucrative almost guaranteed income.

Nice house. Perfect wife. White picket fence. Two perfect kids playing in the yard. Dream on.

I could have never possibly guessed that God had somehow sent my own personal devil, Arthur, to test and to tempt every value I had ever known, or that the War in Vietnam had already set the substrate for my not unwilling journey into largely uncharted waters. I was about to be tested on my ability to tell the difference between black and white. In fact the entire country was headed in a direction that would not allow for any shades of gray whatsoever.

It was 1965 and Lyndon Johnson had just committed the first 200,000 Marines to an escalating firefight, in a geographically divided Southeast Asian country, despite a foreboding forewarning by the fleeing French who had already abandoned the contest that it could never be anything but a no-win situation.

This was a war being proffered by a paranoid super power interfering with a foreign struggle for independence, in a place it had no business to be, and which nearly resulted in tearing the United States to shreds by igniting a domestic civil war of opposing philosophies and moral differences. It was a conflict that in this country was about to cause a borderless internal division having nothing to do with the Mason-Dixon Line and a conflict which ultimately gave Ho Chi Min the ongoing fortitude to see his mission fulfilled and his own visionary dream for his country won and finally realized.

It was a contest that shortsighted American politicians had failed to realize, could only have been successfully accomplished or completed by genocide, an idea that might have actually crossed the minds of some Washington politicos, except for the small fact that the Vietnamese people were not about to go quietly and gently into that good night.

 

Black and White

 

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune

The Titanic sails at dawn.

And everybody’s shouting

“Which side are you on?”

And Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot

Fighting in the captain’s tower.

While calypso singers laugh at them

And fishermen hold flowers.

Between the windows of the sea

Where lovely mermaids flow

And nobody has to think too much

About Desolation row.

(Bob Dylan: Desolation row)

Dylan, Robertson and Ginsberg: Source  robbie robertson.com
Poster www.ragtime-society.de/Video/Deutsch/cover.htm

 

Uncle Jimmy

 

 

Uncle Jimmy

At his house Uncle Jimmy was in charge and there was no doubt that in his castle, he wore the pants. In fact he wore the pants in everyone else’s house too. The man was such a perfectionist control freak that he never realized how totally out of control he really was.

His general persona as a slick dresser was suave, debonair and unctuous. He had to be slick, dressy and most of all unctuous to move those Columbia record sales, with the debonair part of it making him a legend only in his own mind.

However if he did not supervise it, touch it, tweak it, correct it or lay hands on it, it was just not any good, whatever “it” might happen to be. His abuse was entirely verbal, his moods controlled every interactive environment, and his dominating persistence somehow eked its way into anyone’s psyche that happened to be in his vicinity. There was also the peculiar way he looked at people with a sidelong squinty leer and subtle sneer, which would usually presage some subtle critique soon to follow.

Poor Aunt Kay, my father’s sister, was a sweet, obsequious, docile woman who must have endured something unimaginable under his control, until she finally cracked. I think she was in reality no better than a house slave, held little or no opinion on any subject, and probably never opened her mouth because of a consistent fear of corrective criticism. When she did open it, little unintelligible mousy noises emerged, requiring everyone to ask her to please repeat herself.

Then there were the numerous times that my father would come home from golf, having had bitter arguments with Jim on some aspect of the game, the scoring or its rules, to the point that finally my father had to stop playing with him. Jim was always right about everything, no matter the subject.

As an adult I only played golf with him once, which was enough for a lifetime. He was that unique type of gamesman who pouted when he lost, then gloated when he won, so I do give my father credit for throwing In-law loyalty to the wind and finally walking away.

My parents eventually stopped going out to dinner with him too. They said he mercilessly picked on the waiters, always complained about the food, the service or arbitrarily everything else in the restaurant, which completely embarrassed them.

Not only did he direct a Big Band as a sideline occupation, but he also directed every one else in his life as though they too were playing the music for him. My parents tried to cheap out on music lessons, and since my father was doing the cousins braces for cost, they sent me to Uncle Jim for a few complimentary clarinet lessons. He would set up the metronome, which began a Goose Stepping cadence, and then would start to yell when I could not keep up with the time:

  • You’ll never be any good. You don’t practice. You don’t practice. I don’t even know why I’m wasting my time with you.

I thought.

  • Me neither. Maybe I should just have dad rip out little Jimmy’s braces then and we’ll be all square.

Excessive errors were unforgivable to the music Nazi.

I eventually quit anyway when I tired of creating the equivalent of clarinet burps as I tried to play while keeping step in the High School marching band. It was double task that made it akin to not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. I knew I sucked, because it was true that I never practiced, so I did the band a great favor by taking myself out. But by the same token, Uncle Jim had done nothing to further my love or appreciation for music, which ultimately resurfaced later on its own.

In the summer months we were trans-located to the cottage in the Hamptons, while my father who stayed behind to work came out from Westchester only for the weekends. In those early days we also had frequent weekend houseguests, with Uncle Jimmy being among the ones who had repeat invitations. As examples of his OCD behavior, he once showed up on a Saturday, walked through the back door, and promptly polished a stainless steel light switch plate with his handkerchief. He then proceeded to tell my mother that the toaster had finger smudges on it, which should also be cleaned. After that he looked inside the toaster, only to then declare that it required a total crumb purge as well. As f that weren’t enough he then did a white glove walk through of the place as his cumulatively additive critique of the domestic condition began to imply that my mother was a horrible housewife. I am surprised that he survived both a potential personal contamination by the squalid filth as well as my mother’s unspoken desire to murder him by a garrote with the dirty toaster’s electrical cord.

But he could not stop himself even if he had wanted to. For example, he once he came up behind me at the stove when I was making instant soup and criticized my technique for boiling water, stating that I was actually boiling it too hard. I should have done the entire family a great favor by just pouring it on his head.

Then when I was about fifteen or so my father had the bright idea that I could learn the meaning of entrepreneurial enterprise by making some motorboat gas money by digging clams, which he would then transport back to Westchester to the relatives. I charged one dollar per dozen.  The only person who was never satisfied was Uncle Jim. He always complained that the clams were never small enough for his Marinara sauce, while for some reason known only to his epicurean cuisine that larger but minced clams were not acceptable. He also could not understand why I did not give him a baker’s dozen for the dollar because after all, I had received some free music lessons from him.

It did not even faze him in the least that the sized clams he wanted were being illegally poached, which would be solely at my own personal risk. So after I had enough of my father’s badgering me to satisfy his brother-in-laws weekly glutinous complaints, I fixed the situation by bringing the fresh clam business to a precipitous halt.

My father mused:

  • So what am I supposed to tell your Uncle now that he’s counting on you to get him his clams?
  • Tell him he already ate all the babies and that’s why there aren’t any adults left.

This behavior was so pernicious that I eventually found myself recoiling at the sound of his name and became nauseated by the sound of his voice.

If this was a hint of daily life, it was no wonder that Aunt Kay decided to escape from him one day by attempting suicide. This was the beginning of a long string of suicide attempts, which started when she was in her forties. The poor woman was in and out of hospitals, having multiple electric shock treatments. As a result of the piled on multiple medications and the brain frying electricity she seemed to eventually become a vapid vacant eyed vegetable. Now even the little mousy squeaks never escaped her lips.

One interesting thing about suicide is that there is a peculiar gender difference. Statistically, women usually verbalize it and threaten it, but never do it. Men never verbalize it. They just do it, and after the fact everyone seems shocked that there were no advance clues. Women seem more inclined to make the threat to gain attention. Men seem dedicated to its finality.

I have no doubt Kay was depressed. She had good reasons. But I always wondered if there a small part of her that wanted to get back at Jim in the only manner she could. When she was fed up enough she would simply blurt out that she was going down to the basement to drink Clorox again which would subsequently throw Jim and the rest of the family into full-blown crisis mode. My take on it was that she had swallowed so much Clorox that she had probably built up immunity to it.

Jim however was so self-centered; I do not believe he ever thought he had actually played a role in her problem, whereas all the family members would sympathize over the terrible burden his wife had imposed on his life.

  • Poor Jim. Kay tried to do it again and now she’s back in the hospital.

To which I replied:

  • With all that practice, you would think she’d get it right at least one of these times.

I lost track of the number of suicide attempts and she eventually died naturally in her mid eighties, lasting just long enough to see Jim worn down by the stress of never knowing when she would try to off herself again. Because she became so progressively incapacitated, which required continuous watching, he eventually had to stay home to do all the housework and at the same time to monitor her behavior. A truly pathetic but at the same time gratifying scene for me was seeing him in an armchair wrapped up in a shawl doing crochet, which he had taken up to pass the time. He was not even playing his saxophone anymore but at least now the knitting and the housework was being done correctly; meaning he was now wearing both the pants and the skirts of the household

Occasionally he would go on an excursion, once for example taking Kay upstate to see the fall leaves. When he got home he called my mother to tell her how beautiful the “foiliage” was. I told my mother that the two of them together had literally become a tossed salad.

She said:

  • And what does that mean?

I replied

  • He’s the Creamy Italian and she’s the Vegetable.

The whole scenario was pathetic.

After my father permanently relocated to the Hamptons, he would occasionally drive the hundred miles to visit, but the visits became fewer and fewer as my aunt progressively dwindled. I am sure it was difficult for him to see her like this, and when she finally died he did not even attend the funeral. He said that for all intents and purposes she had really died decades before. He also did not even go to the nursing home to visit his old friend Jim, who was there wasting away from the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, until Jim finally died too. It would not have mattered anyway, as it is unlikely that Jim would have even recognized him.

My mother had a special uncanny knack for psychic mind reading and always seemed to have a sixth sense when evil thoughts were afoot in her children. I think that most mothers posses this skill as though it were some sort of brain-stealth mind-policing radar.

One day at about age fourteen, I was extremely upset with my tyrannical parents. Who knows what it was all about, but they had decided to take the train to Manhattan to see a Broadway play, leaving me to think how nice it would be if they would die in a train wreck. I would be free of them forever.

Just before they left, my mother said:

  • Now don’t forget, if anything ever happens to us, it’s in our Will that you kids will have to go and live with your Uncle Jimmy.

I reversed course; said a Novena for their survival, and then prayed until I became emancipated that they would forever enjoy good health.

Uncle Jim

 

Uncle Jimmy

Every kid should have one