from Ting and I: A Memoir
.... Cornell accepted me, and I received a full-tuition scholarship, based on my very high score in the NYS Regents Scholarship Exam. Cornell it would be. The classy Ivy League, I hoped. Not quite, as I will explain.
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.
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