Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Our Last Year Together? Cornell, 1963-64

TINA’S SOPHOMORE YEAR, MY SENIOR YEAR, 1963– 64



Forbidding Mourning

I have saved all Tina’s letters to me, as she has saved the Chanel No. 5 perfumed powder I gave her almost fifty years ago. More foreshadowing?

We knew we might only have our three semesters at Cornell to be together. Near the end of the second of these, that fall semester, for my birthday in December, 1963, she wrote:

Dearest Doug,
You asked me what I would think of these sixteen months a few years from now. My reply –now, after one year, after fifty years:
[She then quoted much of John Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” including the following lines]
Dull sublunary lovers’ love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined
That ourselves know not what it is,
Interassured of the mind,
Care less eyes, lips, and hands to miss.”
Happy birthday, darling.
Love, Tina

Donne’s “Valediction” is a favorite of mine, but a poem I haven’t read for many years. I recently found my copy of Donne’s collected poetry. “Valediction” is there among scores of others, including some other favorites of mine, but its page was the only dog-eared one. I had read it to Tina at our wedding in June of 1984.

Toward the middle of the poem, Donne likens the connection between separated lovers’ souls to “gold to airy thinness beat.” The thin gold foil may lengthen and attenuate, but it never breaks apart. He ends with the metaphor of a circle-drawing compass, with its moving foot representing the lover who must travel away, while the central “fixed foot” always leans and “hearkens after it.” The poem ends, in our case prophetically,

Thy firmness makes my circle just,


And makes me end where I begun.
As Helen Keller wrote: “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we have loved deeply becomes a part of us.”


Phi Epsilon Pi

I have on my bedroom bookcase a group photograph labeled “Phi Epsilon Pi Spring Weekend May 1964.” Among two-score college students in various stages of inebriation, Tina and I are present, dressed somewhat more formally than the average. Tina is in a Chinese high-collared dress, and I am in a white shirt and tie, the tie thrown over my shoulder, in an attempt to look less formal. We are obviously happy, even though we were due to be separated within a month.

We were at Phi Ep through the hospitality of the fraternity brothers. During freshman year, the fraternities and sororities “rush” the newcomers, inviting a selected subset to their houses to hear why they should join, “pledge” the group, then selecting, from those still interested, the students they would invite to join.

I think there were fifty-odd such organizations at Cornell. So far, so good. Not so good was that they were fairly distinctly divided into Christian and Jewish houses, each perhaps having a token few of the other, “minority,” members. Phi Ep was almost wholly Jewish, as were my roommate at 5406 University Halls, Jerry Baker, and another friend and fellow debate-team member, Al Berkeley. Only a few fraternities showed an interest in me, and I preferred Phi Ep partly because this pair would be in it and partly because I did not want to pledge a non-Jewish fraternity, on principle. Quickly into the post-pledge period, I realized I had neither the money nor the interest in alcohol that would make joining appropriate. The fraternity brothers took my withdrawal graciously, and I attended an occasional party at Phi Ep, when no longer a member.


Why Not Marry?

Why didn’t Tina and I get engaged, in 1964, or even get married? Lately, half of Asian Americans (second generation or later generations) marry Caucasians. In 1964 such marriages were much rarer, if only because there were so few Asian Americans. In the 1960s, some states still had laws against interracial marriage, anti-miscegenation statutes. While the occasional stare did not bother us, we believed that our children would have “marginal man” status in America, not accepted fully by some members of either race. The racial mix might have produced the loveliness of a Nancy Kwan or a child with a combination of our personal strengths, but there was no guarantee.

We were 20 and 21 years of age, too young to marry with confidence, though a long engagement might have been feasible.

Both sets of parents were against such a pairing, for reasons ranging from the practical to the ethnocentric. Tina was an obedient Chinese daughter. I was less obedient, but I did value my parents’ wisdom and greater experience. A marriage would have caused much family discontent.

In this period in America, more so than today, interfaith or interracial marriage was often discouraged. As Tina’s dear friend Deanne Gitner tells it (see more of her contribution in “Tributes”), a dutiful Jewish girl, too, was expected to find a Jewish man to marry:

 
Tina met Doug in her freshman year, but Tina told us (her corridor mates) that she needed to find a six-foot-tall man from China, from northern China, to keep her parents happy. We felt we understood her problem, as we were all told to find a Jewish boy and that our parents would give us trouble if we did not.
There were only two Asian women in our class in 1962, one of whom was Tina. Tina’s parents sent her away for her junior year to London to study and, probably, to get her away from Doug.


 
Another question troubled me: Would Tina and I have remained good to each other in the future if external forces became oppressive? I had read Orwell’s 1984 and was convinced and saddened by the protagonist’s capitulation: Winston loved Julia, but broke under torture. They were to continue with him or turn to her. “Do it to Julia,” he croaked. Love was not enough. It was too believable that one would blame the other if the conditions became very unpleasant. I’d like to think we wouldn’t succumb, but I was by no means sure.

If marriage to a successful Chinese professional who loved her would be better for Tina and eventually better for any children she would have, it would be selfish of me to stand in the way. Tina felt the same about me and my best interests. We left it that if neither had married someone else in five years, we would feel free to marry each other. I meant it. Tina suspected that this was a polite refusal. We had a communications failure.

As I have mentioned, Tina’s siblings, Gene and Irene are both married to Caucasians, as is Irene’s elder daughter. The more recent the marriage, the less the controversy it aroused, if any.

 

 


Tina’s Diary, June 1964

Tina twenty years later extracted the following from her diary, written at the time of our separation:


June 8, 1964
Can’t even begin to say what this year has meant to me–only, for now, that it has been the most wonderful, truly wonderful year of my life. I am a different person in many ways and have gone through experiences I never imagined would happen.
At present I am trying my best to alleviate the pain that fills my whole being: Doug and I parted last Saturday, after he met Mom and Dad, and he has not written yet. I know he thinks it is best, and rationally I think it is best. However, it is not easy to erase the memory of a person most dear....
He became my reason for being. He has influenced my thoughts and actions to a great degree. I have matured because of him and have learned so much .... It was the most beautiful thing–the most sincere, earnest, appreciative, trying, fulfilling, happiest experience....
The pain comes and goes. It is not as persistent as two days ago. It is a painful price that I gladly pay in memory of the past.
Whatever the outcome, I admire him most deeply–his spirit, his strength, his kindness. I will always. He has given me so much.
 

I had been Tina’s first love.

    ##


Excerpt from TING AND I: A Memoir of Love, Courage, and Devotion,
published in 2011 by Outskirts Press, available in paperback and ebook formats from Outskirts and from
http://amazon.com

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

"Doing What Comes Naturally," a #Middlegrade Short Story

 
Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher



“Tim, how did the game go?” Eric asked his brother about the church-league basketball game Tim played in earlier that Saturday afternoon. Eric had refereed a fourth-and-fifth-grader game earlier, but didn’t ref the one his brother played in.

“We lost, by a point.”

“That’s too bad. Still, it was a close game, not a wipe-out. How did you do?”

“Not good. I played OK except for missing all four of my foul shots. If I made a couple, we would have won.”

“That’s a shame. The neat thing about foul shots is that you can become pretty good just with practice, and nobody can block your shot. You figure to get to shoot a few in most league games with a ref.”

“Yup.”

“Shall I show you what I was taught? I’m not as good as Tess, but I know how to do it.”

“OK.”

They got their ball and went to the small paved area with the basketball hoop that their dad had set up behind their house. The foul shot line was marked with a foot-long stripe of white paint. Rick took the ball and shot about ten foul shots, making more than he missed, but not a lot more.

“Tim, I’m only so-so at these, but I know what I am supposed to do. Put my feet an inch behind the line. Bounce the ball the same number of times every time. I do it three times. Take a deep breath. Bend my knees. Support the ball with my left hand. Keep my right arm with the elbow tucked in, pointing straight down. Exhale slowly. Unbend my knees, while pushing the ball toward the hoop with my fingers, not my palm. Like this.” Fortunately for Rick, this one went in.

“That’s a lot to remember.”

“Yes, and you have got to do the same set of things over and over, so it becomes like a habit. Our coach called it ‘muscle memory.’ Try it a few times.”

Tim worked with Rick for a dozen or so shots, making a few.

“I’m tired.”

“Sure. That’s enough for now, Tim. You did make a few, and I think you will continue to improve. As you grow, you will get stronger and that will make it easier, too.”

“Yup.”

Rick served as an assistant coach for Tim’s after-school soccer team. Tim was easily the best player on the team, and this was a good time to remind him of it.

“You and I and Tess all like to play basketball, but it is not my best sport and may not be yours. You’re the best player on your soccer team, better than either Tess or I was at your age, too. You may decide to focus more on your soccer skills when you get older. Some things just come more naturally to each of us than others.”

As time went on, Tim did become better at shooting free throws, though he did not become particularly good.

Tim continued to excel at soccer, though, and eventually became the star and captain of his high school soccer team. He took advantage his soccer-playing abilities, doing what came naturally.

##

One of our series of 50 short stories with messages.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Eating the Elephant," A #YA Short Story

 
Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Tess, how’s your school research project going?” her mother asked.

“Not well.”

Tess had three weeks to finish a research paper for her seventh-grade social studies class, and she had made no progress in her first week.

“What’s the problem?”

“It seems like more than I can handle!”

“The topic is Native American tribes of New York State, right?”

“Yes, The Iroquois Confederacy, the Five Nations: Mohawks, Oneidas, Onandagas, Cayugas, and the Senecas.”

Tess’s mother taught in her middle school. “There’s a lot written about them. They had a form of democracy and their women owned the land and taught the children. Lakes and a river were named after the tribes.”

“My problem is not too little information, but too much!”

“How much more time do you have before it’s due?”

“Two weeks. I’ve already wasted a week. I’m a mess!”

“No. Don’t say that. You just need to get organized and get started.”

“How?”

“Plan to do a section on each tribe and then a final section comparing them. Figure out what you want to include, like where they lived in New York, how big they were, what they did for food and shelter, what they contributed to Indian and later colonial culture…those kinds of things. For each tribe, you will have to look up the information. Sources in books and on the Internet will have information about several tribes or details about one or more tribes. It won’t be that hard.”

Rick came by. “Still worrying about that project, Tess?”

“Yes, of course.”

“As our basketball coach says, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

“Thanks, bro, you’re a big help.”

“Well, you do have to get going on it, and I’m going to get going…out.”

Mr. Williams chimed in, “Slow but steady wins the race, Tess.”

“I can do slow, but I am not winning.”

Her dad, always helpful, added, “The Chinese wrote that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. You just have got to start and then keep going.”

The only family member who did not tell Tess how to do the work was Tim, but as a fourth-grader, he did not think of himself as an expert, as one or two or three of the others thought themselves to be.

“OK, everybody, I’ve got the picture. Rick, will you give me a ride to the library?”

“Sure, it’s on my way.”

Tess did finally finish the project, got an A, and promised herself she would start earlier next time.

“Oh, Rick,” she said when the work was finished, “I was given one more piece of advice on handling big jobs: ‘Eat the elephant one bite at a time.’” She added, “And that’s what doing this project tasted like!”

Friday, March 21, 2014

Falling in Love at Cornell

TINA’S FRESHMAN YEAR, MY JUNIOR YEAR, 1962–63


In the second semester of my junior year, when I fell in love with Tina, I had to tell Ellen that she and I were through: “It’s not you, it’s me” or, more correctly, “...it’s Tina.”

Tina Han Su, the girl originally from Kunming, China, and Douglas Winslow Cooper, the boy originally from Manhattan, met in the course Chinese 102 on the first day of the second semester at Cornell, in January 1963. In retrospect, it seems miraculous, life-altering, for both of us.

The so-sophisticated and experienced upperclassman was enchanted immediately. Beautiful, slender, refined, soft-spoken, smart, Tina was his Platonic ideal of femininity. Quiet, with a bright smile and an easy laugh. Nothing crude, nothing coarse, somewhat shy, not quite a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (Churchill on the Soviet Union) but–yes, it’s a cliché –initially a bit inscrutable. Blouse and skirt were her standard attire, rather unrevealing, modest.

I asked her out for a “coffee date” with me at the student union—a traditional way at Cornell to start. Did she drink tea? Did I? Can’t recall. The lovely face, the soft but confident voice, the delicate hands, the just-right lips, flawless light tan skin, jet-black hair, and adorable nose, the brains coupled with modesty. The more I learned, the more I liked. Her family was quite educated, and they were Republicans, my brand. She played the piano seriously and exceptionally well. She herself was serious but happy, at ease. I thought maybe she liked me.

She says she liked my sense of humor and my intelligence. I liked to joke. Tina liked to laugh. It was a good match.

So considerate. I had little money, as she knew. One early date, we walked downtown to a movie. It was late and cold, and I suggested a cab for the trip back. She would not hear of it. Later, Tina would carry out some of her prepaid lunches from her dorm to share with me at nearby Noyes Lodge, overlooking the small and scenic Beebe Lake.

Diplomatic almost to a fault, Tina would find the nicest way to express her disagreement. It took time for me to learn to translate the hint of an objection to mean she really didn’t agree or didn’t want what was proposed. “Not necessary” or “you needn’t bother” often meant “not wanted.”

We’ll back up a bit here before we continue. Tina’s very close friend, Elaine Tashiro Gerbert writes about the young woman Tina was during her first semester at Cornell (a longer version of Elaine’s memoir can be found in the “Tributes” section at the end of this book):

 
I first saw Tina the day I moved into Clara Dickson Hall VI at Cornell in September 1962. It was in the lounge area of the dorm, where there was a grand piano. She was playing something (which she later told me was Schubert) that sounded terribly complicated and difficult—a waterfall of notes that kept coming….
Tina and I noticed each other right away. There were few Asians at Cornell in 1962, and none from upstate New York, except us. Moreover, she was from an area not far from my hometown of Geneva. I recall being introduced to her parents and older sister in the lounge area. Her sister smiled at me with kind interest. As an Asian in a virtually all-white university in the early l960s, one was an anomalous presence in an environment that was grand, imposing, and sometimes forbidding….
[Tina] dressed simply, and her clothes were well made and different from the store-bought skirts and blouses that a lot of the young women wore. Understated elegance might be a way to describe them. She seemed not to have many outfits….Her dress was subdued…I now realize her mother’s influence and the taste of a Chinese gentlewoman with scholarly inclinations in her clothes….
Tina was a disciplined person. Her manner was soft and she was kind to others. But strict with herself….
Years later, fellow Cornellian Georgia Paul remembered Tina as being “a cut above the rest of us.”
Of the Chinese women students at Cornell at the time, she seemed more mature, more refined, wiser, and fundamentally surer of herself and her values. She made an impression on Caucasians. In the spring of 1963, she went through sorority rush because she wanted to experience it, although she did not intend to join a sorority. I heard someone say that Tina Su had received an invitation to join from every single sorority that she had visited.
She seemed to have a date every Saturday night. On one occasion she went out with a Caucasian student named Rick, who was a friend of a woman in my corridor. I recall Moneen telling someone that Rick felt that Tina was uneasy about going out with a non-Chinese man. I also heard that she was criticized by the people in the Chinese student community for doing so.
 


Chinese 102

Chinese 102 was the second semester of the double-credit, six-days-a-week introduction to Chinese at Cornell. It met at 8:00 a.m. in the basement of an ivy-covered building. Adorable, cheerful, pint-sized Mrs. Ni taught most of the spoken Chinese lessons, being a native speaker. Miss Mills, attractive, serious, taller and somewhat sterner, a former resident of China, dealt more with the written language and the grammar. The class had eight students and was rather informal. We all were interested in the language and enjoyed the class despite the early hour.

What brought Tina to Chinese 102? What brought me?

Tina and I were both in the College of Arts and Sciences, which had a foreign language requirement. I think that a few years of college language training were sufficient. The first-year courses were typically double courses, so I could meet this requirement by taking a language in my junior and senior years.

Tina entered Cornell in the fall of 1962, as a pre-med student. I had entered in the fall of 1960, intending to major in physics, which met the requirements of some of my scholarship aid. Tina had learned enough spoken Chinese, but not the written language, to skip the first semester–Chinese 101–as long as she worked on the written language on her own, which she had done. She had taken French in high school, but French was no longer the useful, “universal language” it once was; perhaps she could more quickly become proficient in Chinese. (Was there even the thought that she might one day marry someone from China?).

Why was I taking Chinese? I had studied French and Latin in high school and could likely have passed Cornell’s language proficiency test with only another year of college French. But ever since my elementary school years, when I would go a half-dozen city blocks to bring my father’s shirts to the Chinese laundry, I had been fascinated by the little picture-words, ideographs, characters, of the written Chinese language. The people at the laundry, through kindness or merely good business practice, were friendly toward me. My stamp collection and coin collection had many more examples of the cryptic written Chinese. I was curious.

In practical terms, China was a potential world power, though slow to bloom, and my Chinese might lead to an alternate career, if physics did not work out. I did take enough of the language to be able to pursue a master’s degree if I chose to and came very close to enlisting in the U.S. Army to be trained as a Chinese interpreter/translator.

The spoken language, the Mandarin dialect of Peking and of the educated classes, has a simple grammar but is hard for Westerners to master because it has many homonyms whose only distinguishing characteristics are the tones superimposed on the syllables. Mau can mean feather or cat, depending on the tone, and there are at least two more mau words with still different meanings. (A few years later, during her first marriage, Tina lived for a time with her in-laws in Taiwan; her confusing the tones sometimes led to humorous misunderstandings, with some loss of face for her.)

The written language has its own special difficulties. Some of the Chinese characters are self evident: “-” is yi, meaning “one” and “=” is er, meaning “two,” and three has an added horizontal line. But from there on, the numbers are not obvious: “+” is ten, for example. A small box is a mouth, and the word for “middle” or “central” has an added vertical stroke. Most of the ideographs simply have to be memorized. They are composed of one or more of 214 “radicals,” often combined so as to give hints as to sound or meaning or both.

A reader of Chinese newspapers can get by with between a thousand and two thousand such characters, where we ended up after the first two years. More challenging work might require memorization of as many as 5,000 characters. Contrast that with the typical educated speaker of English, who probably can read and spell correctly (or almost correctly) 50,000 or more different words.

This disadvantage of the Chinese written language is offset by the fact that speakers of different dialects of Chinese, which differ from one another as much as do the various Romance languages, use the same ideographs for the same words. They can all read the same texts. Sometimes, two speakers of different dialects trace the word-pictures on each other’s palms to communicate.

Tina and I had pleasant times each morning in Chinese 102, followed by hand-in-hand walks to whatever came next, often a coffee or tea date. When it was cold, we would each take off a single glove and hold hands inside the pocket of my coat. Bliss.

By Valentine’s Day 1963, we were deeply in love. We still are, 48 years later. I can offer reasons that we fell in love, but I’m not wholly convinced reasons explain it. Ducklings follow their mothers right after being born, but if they first are in contact with a human being instead, they will follow him, I’ve read. Would they offer up reasons for following him? Perhaps. Some mix of reason and physical attraction had put me head-over-heels in love with Tina. Still am. Character trumps all the rest, and she has proved she has it, in spades.


Destinations in Flux

When Tina and I met, I was pre-physicist, if there had been such a designation. Actually, I was in the “B” physics option, for those who might not be intending to go on to physics in graduate school. I wasn’t certain. The Soviet satellite Sputnik had launched in 1957, and the nation was hot for science. It looked like a way to get an interesting white-collar job, indoor work with no heavy lifting. I did not want to have the money worries my family had during my early years. My freshman year advisor, eventually a Nobel laureate, had little interest in my plans, whatever they were. It may have been clear even then that I would not be a physics superstar, but well-above-average was still achievable.

After a poor start, I got better grades and eventually graduated cum laude in physics, not spectacular but not chopped liver, either. By my junior year, I had obtained a much better part-time job, minding and “tuning up” the atom-smashing cyclotron overnight on Saturdays (and some other hours). I watched an oscilloscope, with its faint, dancing lines, and twiddled with any of a dozen or so knobs and switches to keep this beam of charged particles at a high current.

Often, however, one needed only make sure the current stayed between certain limits, and the job was about as taxing as babysitting a sleeping child. That left lots of time to study my Chinese, memorizing those little characters and practicing the words with the different tones. Many a Sunday morning, after my shift was over, Tina and I would eat breakfast together in Noyes Lodge overlooking the lake.

Tina’s pre-med coursework went well until she came to the dissection laboratory, probably in comparative anatomy. The cat saturated with formaldehyde was her Waterloo. She was often tired, too, and may even then have been showing early signs of her (as-yet undiagnosed) multiple sclerosis. At that point Tina’s sister, Irene, was studying dentistry (and eventually, orthodontia). Their parents had high expectations for the children, including Tina, but Tina herself was not really committed to medicine. That semester, she switched to Asian Studies, in which she graduated With Distinction three years later.

Tina’s parents would ultimately get their M.D. child in their youngest, Gene. He had no trouble with Brown University, Rochester School of Medicine, and whatever extra hurdles he needed to jump to become the rheumatologist he is today. He married a smart and career-oriented Caucasian girl, Christin Carter, whom he met at Brown. They now live in Ann Arbor, where he has his medical practice, and where Christy is a professor in the physiology department at the University of Michigan, as well as the associate director of a biomedical research center focusing on diabetes.

To brag a bit about my own family: Nick graduated in civil engineering from Cornell and has become one of the vice presidents of a major engineering firm. Diana became a nurse, worked a variety of jobs, and subsequently has cared for my mother at home. Cliff obtained an M.S. in biology, then to law school for a J.D., and on to become a finance manager at a car dealership in California. Chris majored in chemistry, earning his B.S. from Clemson and his M.S. and Ph.D. at Stanford. Chris is now Senior Director of Chemistry for the TB Alliance in New York City, a nonprofit research-management organization dedicated to fighting drug-resistant tuberculosis with the help of money from Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, among others.

In both families, Su and Cooper, the apples had not fallen far from the trees. Our parents were all college educated, at a time when such attainments were much rarer than they are today. Both families prized intelligence and education, and it showed.


Summer Vacation, 1963

In June of 1963, Tina and I were separated by the summer break. Tina worked at the University of Rochester library, and I was at the Cornell University cyclotron, “tuning up the beam.” It was hard on us to be apart. Letters helped.

A fellow graduate student, Charlie, was nice enough to agree to give me a ride to Rochester one Saturday, in return for Tina’s finding him a date for that evening. Coming out of the library that afternoon, Tina saw me and ran toward me, and that vision took my breath away. Lovely, beloved, loving—Tina was all that and more.

We could hardly wait for the fall and her return to Ithaca.

Fall semester was wonderful. Was this to be our last year together?

Monday, March 17, 2014

"Close But Not Quite," a #YA Short Story

 
Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

Mr. and Mrs. Williams agreed on most things, but Mr. W. bought twenty-five lottery tickets to try to win a new mini-van, and Mrs. W. called it “buying a pig in a poke,’ as her husband had no clear idea of what the new van would be worth and how many other raffle tickets had been sold.

When they learned more about the raffle, they both had facts to support their points of view. Twenty-five thousand tickets had been sold at $1 apiece. There would be one winner of a new van worth somewhat more than half that price, so the charity [which shall be nameless here] would make a nice profit, and a lucky winner would get a fine prize.

Rick said, “With twenty-five tickets out of twenty-five thousand, Dad, our chances of winning are 1 in 1000.”

“It’s a long shot, I agree, but it would be fun to win. Let’s go to the hall where they will be holding the drawing.”

The family all piled into their used car to go to the hall. They met friends and neighbors, had refreshments, and awaited the selection of the winning ticket.

After announcing how successful the sales of raffle tickets had been and explaining how the money would be used, the master of ceremonies had a little girl come to the table that was holding the raffle tickets, close her eyes, reach in and pick one out.

“The winning ticket is 13589!” the M.C. shouted.

“We won! We won!” Tim said, pointing to one of their raffle ticket stubs.

“Let me see that, Tim,” said his dad. “No, the closest one we had was 13586. We missed by three. I see someone across the hall jumping up and down. They must have won.”

“We were close,” Tess said.

Mrs. W. was less excited, “There are some old sayings that apply, including ‘a miss is as good as a mile,’ meaning that being close is often worthless. Another is ‘close doesn’t count, except in horseshoes.’”

“…or hand grenades,” Rick joked.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer continued, “the Didsbury Movie Theatre has donated prizes for the runners-up: all of you who have the first four numbers right. Every ticket from 12380 to 12388 will be exchanged for a free pass to all the movies at the theatre for the rest of the year.”

“That’s us!” Tess exclaimed. Being a big movie fan, she was pleased with the prize.

“See, Mom, we won something,” Tim added.

“Yes, and we had a nice time, so it wasn’t a complete waste, but I am not a fan of gambling on anything.”

With a smile, Mr. Williams, as they got out of the car in their driveway, quoted Shakespeare, “All’s well that ends well.” Buying the raffle tickets had just barely been a good idea.


******

One of fifty instructive short stories we have written.
 

 

 

 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

From TING AND I: A Memoir, At Cornell 1960-62

MY FRESHMAN YEAR AT CORNELL, 1960–61


In September 1960, after a summer as head counselor at a small local summer camp, and a very pleasant romance with Rhoda, my co-counselor, I entered Cornell.

I love to joke. One person described me as a child as being “ebullient.” My motto is from Horace Walpole, “The world is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think.” Mostly, I find life funny. My first year at Cornell was anything but funny.

When I first arrived at 5406 University Halls (building #5, 4th floor, room 06), my roommate had preceded me. Jerry was stereotypical New York City, regardless of where he actually came from. He was NYC in speech, manner, dress. In his closet were a dozen, perhaps even two dozen suits. I had, at most, one. There was an income/wealth disparity.

For many of the students, including me, Cornell had not been their first choice. They may not have respected it the way those would who had aspired to go there. They were noisy, especially at night, often crude. I was disillusioned, depressed, sometimes angry. My fight record that year was two wins, no losses, against bigger opponents, as usual.

To cover living expenses I worked cleaning tables and washing dishes eight to twelve hours a week at Willard Straight Dining Hall. Boring and definitely not classy. Kind of thing to build character or at least a great familiarity with the tunes on the jukebox, including “Moon River,” “Warsaw Concerto” and “Scotch and Soda.” It helped pay the bills, as I was on my own.

Athletics for me that first year included intramural basketball and preparation for and participation in the freshman boxing tournament. Boxing was very tiring, even when the rounds were short, maybe two minutes each. Three rounds to the fight. By the third round, the fighters were exhausted. My record: one win, one draw. Good enough, and I had enough.

Physics, easy for me in high school, was hard: my first mid-term exam performance earned me 17 out of a possible 100 points. I jokingly asked the teaching assistant, “Is this my grade or my seat number?” Even graded “on a curve,” it was a relatively poor performance. In preparing for the exam, I had not worked on enough problems, having been satisfied to have understood the general principles, the big picture, or so I thought.

I had lost my religious faith and yet had retained conservative political views that put me in the minority at Cornell. The horror of the Nazi treatment of the Jews, as described in Erich Maria Remarque’s Spark of Life, shocked me. How could God let such a thing happen? Without God, unfortunately, there seemed little on which to base moral choices. Eventually I came to “Do onto others,” echoing Christ and, essentially, Kant.

Albert Camus and existentialism influenced me, too: one should make of one’s life a canvas, a work of art, one of which you could be pleased or proud. My mother’s advice was along the lines of “Don’t do anything you would need to keep a secret.” Of course, more easily said than done.

Not misbehaving was made easier by the paucity of those of the female persuasion. The ratio of men to women was high, perhaps four-to-one, and a freshman had little chance when compared to an upperclassman. With so many more guys than girls on campus, I rarely had a date.

I do remember going out with Judy, a pleasant, rather plain fellow frosh I had met during Freshman Orientation. We had a nice enough date, but we did not follow up. Sophomore year, Judy returned after summer vacation, transformed. She had undergone rhinoplasty (“nose job” in Cornellese), bleached her hair blond, and dressed very well. She had become a real knockout, with lots of suitors. It must have been more attention than she could handle, though, because by senior year, she had stopped bleaching her hair and stopped dressing up, looking more like the girl I had dated originally. Thoreau summed up such a situation thus: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes.” Robert Frost entitled one of his poems, “The Lovely Shall Be Choosers,” in which the choices often turn to have unpleasant, unexpected consequences.

Academically, as well as socially, I was just getting by in my freshman year. After only one semester, I wanted out. My parents convinced me to give it another semester.


MY SOPHOMORE YEAR AT CORNELL, 1961–62

After another summer of being head camp counselor with Rhoda, who was from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, smart, attractive, athletic, and having what my mother described as a “Miss America figure,” I returned to Ithaca, to share a double room in Boldt Hall, much nicer than my freshman digs. Looked old. Had Ivy. My roommate was Miles, tall, smart, athletic, good-looking, and wealthy, quickly snapped up by the leading Jewish fraternity on campus, leaving me with a double room and without a roommate. Two plusses: more space, more privacy. My class work went better. My mood improved.

That fall, I “pledged” and then “de-pledged” a fraternity, Phi Epsilon Pi. I return to the Phi Ep story below. I was not fully the frat type. “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member,” as Groucho Marx once said about himself.

Underscoring my unsuitability for fraternity life was the series of fights I got into, one much-too-early morning, with the fraternity located across the street from Boldt Hall. It was probably a spring Friday night. I wanted to study, and they wanted to party. I was sober and tired. They were drunk and loud. I wasn’t the only one to complain. Catcalls went back and forth to and from others at Boldt Hall and the brothers at the fraternity. Campus police were called, came and went, ineffectually.

I was fed up. I dressed, marched into the frat house, went upstairs and told the guardian of the record player to turn it down. “Turn it down yourself,” he replied. As I did so, he jumped me, but I put him down. On my way down the stairs another guy grabbed me. That was a draw, broken up by the brothers. On my way out, a very big brother came after me. I got in one good punch, then down I went. He could have been a lot meaner but wasn’t, so I merely got a fat lip and a bruised cheekbone. I felt good, though. Something had needed to be done. It wasn’t just the noise, but also the demeaning catcalls from the fraternity that seemed to require my direct action.

One bright spot my sophomore year was “Great Poets,” a course I took with Professor Forrest Read. The course fulfilled an English requirement and met at a convenient time, two considerations that outweighed the import of the topic. Poets? Maybe I’d meet some girls there. Prof. Read came to English literature after having started out as an engineer, so we had a technical bent in common. The poets were great– Donne, Pope, Keats, Robert Browning, Yeats and Frost–and some of the poetry has been unforgettable for me. I do not recall finding a girlfriend there.

I was pleased by what Prof. Read did when I, uncharacteristically, disputed a grade. He had given me a poor grade on a paper, thinking I had badly misinterpreted one of Donne’s poems. In his office I made the case for my interpretation, and he graciously backed down, raising my grade from 75 to nearly 100. On another paper, he was even more generous. We talked about other topics as well, and he gave me some good, avuncular advice. He was one of the few people I have admired. That could be a theme.

My grades improved, though not uniformly.

Another bright spot: my social life improved greatly. I forget how I met Ellen: brilliant, beautiful, violin-playing English major from a New York City suburb. Daughter of a far-left M.D. from New Jersey, she and I disagreed on many things, but we had somehow fallen for each other. She once said she had a “thing” for Christian guys. That matched well with my “thing” for Jewish girls, especially smart, pretty ones....

Despite some ups and downs, we went through the year as a romantic pair, and she replaced Rhoda as my co-counselor at the summer camp, my last year there. When I met Ellen again fifteen years later, she was still smart, attractive, sensitive, and still wholly at odds with me politically. A marriage would have been doomed.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review of Memoir WHY I'M (NO LONGER) A MORMON



Once a Mormon…

Until I read this book I was mildly pro-Mormon, viewing the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (LDS) as a net plus for the country and for the Mormons themselves. After all, the Saints gave us Mitt Romney, a decent man who might have been a fine President.

Author Regina Samuelson [a pen name, a nom de plume, an alias, a nom de guerre] is inching her way out of the Mormon closet with this confessional contribution to the debunking of the faith that has helped make Mormons among the most successful people in the U.S. Mormons rule Utah and are highly influential is several other Western states.

Samuelson entertainingly and sometimes shockingly tells the story of her involvement, submersion really, in the Church, along with vignettes about many other members, and helps us understand why she no longer believes, although she is afraid to be known as an apostate.

She directs us to several books that have shown the “history” of the Church to have been largely fabricated, as was its core document, the Book of Mormon, which purports to tell of the coming of Jesus Christ to Latin America in the distant past, for which no evidence exists. The Garden of Eden was in Missouri. God lives on an unnamed planet by the star Kolob. Joseph Smith translated the BoM revelations inscribed on gold plates that later disappeared, dictating the BoM to a scribe who sat on the other side of a curtain. Some of Smith’s work involved “improving” the translation of earlier Biblical texts.

Smith and Brigham Young were notorious womanizers, as well as polygamists. They showed little concern for the travails of their followers during their arduous early-nineteenth-century westward migration.

The doctrines and the Church’s hierarchy place women in second-class roles, primarily as breeders and then mothers. The “lucky” ones go through extensive and intensive indoctrination as children, attend Brigham Young University, marry a fellow Mormon who has returned from a two-year mission, produce babies and help economize at home so 10% of the family income (a tithe) can come off the top and go to support the Church.

Men and women get recruited for “callings,” absorbing even more of their time and energy. Once a Mormon, your Church, your friends, your family require you to sacrifice repeatedly for the good of the LDS.

The emphasis on female chastity before marriage, while making out-of-wedlock births rare, leads to pent-up sexual demand that Samuelson believes explains why Utah has the highest per-capita consumption of pornography. Over and over, she details a rigidity of thinking and behavior that makes “blind faith” and “dysfunctional” and “Victorian” seem understatements.

The book’s dedication is touching and instructive:


To all those who have struggled as I have,

Who have yet to struggle as I have,

And to those who love us anyway.

One can only sympathize with the plight of good people who have built their honest faith on rotten foundations. They will populate the Earth at rates rivaling those of the Moslems, another all-inclusive religion that subjugates its adherents, especially women.

********

This review was also posted at http://amazon.com,
where the book can be readily purchased.