A Mind That Suits What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Tuesday, June 03, 2003 :::
I am dropping my circumloquacious style today, and just using "I." The semi-impersonal style of A Mind That Suits, cadged shamelessly from that pre-eminent prose stylist, Miss Manners, leads to much better writing, but this one is about me.

What's a Junior University?
By the end of this summer, I will have spent perhaps 6 weeks out of the last two years back at one of my favorite places on earth, Leland Stanford Junior University. Nearly everyone who sees its name spelled out in full immediately asks, "What's a junior university?" I do wish the Stanfords had stuck the word "memorial" just before "university," for it was as a memorial to their teenaged son, felled by malaria, I believe, that they founded this wonderful institution. But they didn't stick the word in, and so nearly everyone asks the same question.

When I was there, 25 years ago, many felt that a "junior" university was what it was, although that was generally on my side of campus, the fuzzy studies side. The Farm was always famous in engineering, and had achieved first rank in some areas many, many years before that. The phrase "Silicon Valley" was coined when I was there, and it would not have come into being with good old SU, to show how out of touch some critics were.

A man named J.E. Wallace Sterling, as school president during the late 1950's and 1960's, moved the university up in general standing by getting the alums to pony up enough cash so he could steal the most prominent faculty from more established schools. "Guess who I bought today?" was one of his favorite questions, according to one alum who colluded with him. A lot of them, delighted by the salary and the locale, took up the offer, moved to Palo Alto, and promptly went to sleep. Particularly in the humanities, the major work of the most prominent professors in my time had been done at other schools, before Sterling nabbed them. But it was a wise plan, even the sleepiest full professor has to have graduate students, and no one would dream of calling the place a junior university now.

The path to greatness was clear to Sterling and his successors, and it should be clearly labeled. No sign marks the start of Palm Drive, the stunning formal entrance to the university, but I have an idea for one.

It should say "Your Tax Dollars At Work."

What has your money bought? Well, first of all, what was potentially the most beautiful university in the United States is now actually the most beautiful university in the United States. 25 years ago, the back alleys of the magnificent central quad were sad little cul-de-sacs of dead plants and bad paving, students were living in temporary trailers that were quite litterally rotting, and the famed tech side of campus was a barely paved beehive of quonest huts and shacks.

No longer. Students can now live all four years on campus in earthquake-proof housing. The housing office even begs students to put their names on waiting lists for housing, whereas they used to laugh at you. The whole campus has been landscaped, and the western side of campus, the science and engineering side, is almost a Theme Park of Techno Dreams.

Herewith, some observations, after 25 years away.

A fine tradition dies. I have a well-developed appreciation of minor disasters, and lunchtime at good old SU used to provide one of the funniest spectacles I've ever seen. The East Side of campus houses the fuzzy studies departments. If you go up the main lane that runs along the east side of the Quad and through White Plaza, the center of student life, you walk onto Mayfield Avenue, known simply as the Row, where there are many smaller, old wooden student residences. They tend to attract the fuzzy studies majors, who are willing to put up with the cramped rooms and the more expensive food provided by their tiny kitchens in exchange for all that wood paneling. So there is a North-South Axis of Humanities majors. In my day, there was an East-West Axis of Techies. Those students were attracted by the larger rooms and more plentiful carbohydrates offered in the main dorms, then almost exlusively on the East side of campus, as far away from the science and engineering buildings as possible. The lunchtime rush of students heading homeward turned White Plaza into a magnificent jumble of pedestrians and bicyclists all trying to figure out who was going to zig thisway so they could zag that way. Always good for one entirely preventable rim-bender and, if you were lucky, there might even be a small pile-up.

This last visit marked the only time I was scheduled to be back during the school year, and I dropped my research at 11:45 one day so I could relive the glory years.

Boy, was I disappointed.

There is now a whole stretch of housing on the West side of campus, so students head this way and that with nary a zig or a zag. White Plaza was merely crowded for a few minutes, and then it returned to its usual sleepy self.

Is anybody here?

One thing that has not changed is the tremendous isolation of the campus. It occupies 8000 acres, andthey have used up most of it. Every department has its own building, every professor has a good-sized office. If you make your career while avoiding faculty committees, there is probably no reason for you to even acknowledge the existence of any other prof.

This also affects student life. I was a gregarious lad, so I had no trouble this way, but for the introverts, life here can be social hell. You have to make the effort to meet people. That has not changed, and probably never will. It does reflect the storied loneliness of the Western parts of the US.

You are all crazy. From the lady who took my reservation at the ancient Mermaid Inn on El Camino Real to all the professors I met to the students I ran into, everyone complained about the weather. You read correctly: complained. Hot, the motel lady warned me. Hot, hot, hot. I forced myself to remember that as I stood without a jacket waiting for the shuttle at SFO in the freezing mist. "You're standing in the middle of the Bay," I kept repeating, as the airport does indeed jut out into the water. Menlo Park was warm when I got there, but I walked the two miles into campus every day, and only on two days was it anything remotely resembling hot. The last day I was there, the temperature dropped perhaps 15 degrees, and, yes, everyone started saying how cold it was. As a Southerner, I can say with assurance that every single day I spent there was "perfect."

You are all shameless liars. What everyone also said was that they were complaining because they were so used to perfect weather. They told me this even when they knew I had spent 6 years in the area. They told me this even when I was standing in line for the NCAA water polo championships two years ago. Dante Dettamanti, our legendary water polo coach, was retiring that year and in honor of him they held the championships at Stanford's breathtaking pool. (For any old timers who might have found their way here, the old diving tank is now the Dante Dettamanti water polo tank.) When I saw that, I thought to myself, "an outdoor swimming event in Palo Alto in December? Couldn't they just rename a pool in San Diego after him for one day?" And, as I fully expected, I found myself huddled with others in a freezing, blowing mist waiting for the gates to open. I happened to be huddling with the mothers of the team members, and that was when they told me that this was highly unusual. I think I was rude enough to say that I had gone to school there.

One of the products of my Stanford education is a deepseated aversion to that kind of winter. I was in Rome for the Jubilee, and it was just like that. The next year, it was ten degrees colder and beautifully clear. Guess which vacation I remember happily? I even climbed to the Cuppola of St. Peter's that second year. There were only tourists with me. The Italians were hiding from the unaccustomed cold. Good thing it didn't snow.

I long ago concluded that 25 degrees and snowing is infinitely preferable to 35 degrees and blowing mist. You can shovel snow. You can't shovel mist.

The freezing Palo Alto winters were a distant memory the last two weeks of May, when it was, every day, absolutely perfect.

Speaking of water polo...

Good luck and Godspeed. If you enjoy the company of students, which every teacher should, then you will find yourself having "what now?" conversations with seniors. I happen to value those kinds of conversations--they remind you of why you are a teacher--but they are even more enjoyable when the student is a remarkably sunny and intelligent young man named Jeff Nesmith who happens to have been a star on your very favorite sports team in the world, and you are sitting outside in a perfect Palo Alto spring. A water polo player who took a class in Attic vase painting out of interest. That's Attic as in "Ancient Athens." This kid is an embodiment of my Stanford career. The current Ancient Art specialist, Jody Maxmin, was a faculty advisor to the dorm where I was an RA, and is still apparently a lovely person who inspires her students, if Jeff's enthusiasm is any indication. Her predecessor was my late, beloved advisor, Isabelle Kelly Raubitschek, and watching a water polo match on a glorious fall day was one of my favorite ways to relax. Jeff will do well in life, I am as certain as can be, at least after he finishes splashing around a couple of years in the pro leagues overseas, which is what is on the short term agenda. (Boy, do I wish I was in a position to do that.) Having lunch with him was refreshing and truly welcome break from the musty files at the Hoover Institution.

The Arnold Nicklaus of Water Polo. I am a Southern boy, and about the only things that I carried from my time in California are a love for fresh food and a passion for water polo. Water polo is an obscure sport in most of the US, but in California it is a big deal, as it is in the Mediterranean world, where they have pro teams. In fact, a pro player friend in Italy once bemoaned the fact that Italy, like most of the world, has only one "television sport," whereas the US has three. He happens to hate soccer and wished he could have a big sports career playing something else. One doubts that there is room for another "television sport" here alongside football, baseball, and basketball, and one doubts even more seriously that water polo could make a play for that position.

But water polo does seem to have found its Arnold Palmer and its Jack Nicklaus all at once, in the person of young Tony Azevedo. (That's his Olympic bio. His Stanford bio is here.) For those who know sports history, Palmer revived the popularity of golf with his athletic looks, his charming personality, and aggressive play, paving the way for the sour, dumpy-looking Nicklaus's fame as a player. Tony has an attractive personality, in a cocky exuberant kid kind of way, and has dominated the sport since he played on our Olympic squad at age 16. He also photographs exactly the way he looks, which I know because I have taken a lot of pictures of him in the last few years, usually outracing some poor schlub from UCLA. That is the kind of thing that makes you a salable commodity these days, if you photograph the way you look. The young ladies of Stanford--who call themselves girls when the PC police aren't listening--seem to like his looks, judging by the screaming and the giggles at that championship. He is featured as the 7th of the world's Top 20 Athletes in this month's Men's Journal, a fact I would have skipped had his teammate Jeff not told me over lunch. It's a very nice write-up, with some great photos. I figure he will be much more famous than his sport, like Greg Louganis or Lance Armstrong. Lance Armstrong is even his favorite athlete. Good luck to him, I say. You should sit above a goal at some match and watch Azevedo's curve ball, or whatever it is they call a curve ball in water polo. Simply amazing.

Boys and girls. I like that. I have heard them do it myself: Even at a PC campus like Stanford, when the language nazis are in their meetings, young gentlemen and ladies do indeed call themselves "boys" or (far more often) "guys" and "girls." They are, and it's good that they do. In any other language, you are a boy or girl until well into your twenties, and that is right. Life happens too fast as it is.

I even saw some guys playing Ultimate shout out a warning to "you girls," who happened to look slightly PC-ish, and in fact they pretended no one was talking to them. What was great was that the boys were being polite and seemed to be completely oblivious to the "need" to call these very young ladies "women," or "wymyn," or what the hell ever. Freshman orientation language nazis please take note: the boys and girls are probably ignoring you, and paying attention to each other. As well they should

Speaking of PC. It's there, it's real, and Stanford is soaked in it. Which does point to a dark side to life there, but I will dole those out piecemeal. This turned out to be a pleasant walk down memory lane, and so I will leave it that way.

Well, I have to go teach my own classes. A Mind That Suits returns to its normal self tomorrow. The only place I could conveniently buy the Wall Street Journal opened a mere 15 minutes before the library did, thus wrecking my invariable morning routine. Man, did that upset me. I am back in Palo Alto for two weeks in August, and will have to figure something out.

Is "circumloquacious" a word?

Until tomorrow.

::: posted by A Mind That Suits at 10:05 AM



Post a Comment


A Related Website on Christian Spirituality
The Fullness of Him
The Easiest Way to Keep Up With the News:
Best of the Web
Links to Web Friends
One Good Turn
A Dog's Life
Power Line
Rambles and By-ways

What doesn't kill me, makes me laugh... usually.

Powered by Blogger