1977. It’s mostly a blur. Sometimes when I try to recall the events of that year, it seems as if it were the year that for the most part never was. I remember coming back to Wisconsin after winter break and then, insert crazy time warp here, I graduated the following December.
I know I had some classes. In that spring semester, I experienced hardly the favorite teacher of all my college days, but he had the most wonderful reading list. The course was Irish Drama. Some of the playwrights we read were Shaw, at least a half-dozen plays or more, all of Seán O’Casey, John Millington Synge, and Samuel Beckett. It was fascinating.
Curious about those DNA tests, I took one a few years ago and found out, much to my surprise, that I’m 8% Irish. Maybe I connected so well with those writers because of that. I wish I could say it was because of the professor, but alas that would not be true.
I sat for my M.A. comprehensive exam on the last Saturday of Fall semester. I had made the stupendous decision to move many miles away from campus in my second year in Madison. The first year I’d lived three blocks from the library, the student union, and the English Department located in Helen C. White Hall. How convenient it would have been to stay in my first apartment.
Not only had it been close to all the campus buildings that mattered, but it had been soundproof. My new place had walls and floors made out of rice paper.
One time I was taking a bath in the second place, and made the mistake of holding onto the soap dish to pull myself up in the tub. I’m actually a shower guy, but I found reading in the tub to be a good way to study, especially in the winter, where I could keep adding hot water.
Anyway, I pulled on the soap dish and the whole fixture came out of the wall. Fortunately I wasn’t too far off my ass at the time, so the trip back down was not painful.
A stiff breeze blew through the hole. I scooted right up to the new breezeway and what do you think I saw? There was about a three inch gap between mine and my neighbor’s wall. The place was not insulated, obviously, since there was a draft in between our units.
But that was not the main attraction here. No, the gap was nothing compared to seeing that exactly opposite my soap dish was the back of their soap dish. Such precision construction work. The mind boggles.
To make life more difficult than it already was, then, I’d migrated into the hinterlands. The drive into campus the morning of the exam was dismal. It was a dark and stormy morning after a dark and stormy night. The basement of Helen C. White Hall was a pay parking lot. I was the first one there. It might have been 5:30 a.m. The exam would begin at 8:00.
Instead of doing the good student thing and heading up to the lounge to do some last minute review of my notes, I sat in my car and listened to music. The only song I remember hearing on that morning before the exam began is the Doobie Brothers’ “Black Water.”
I fixated on the raft and drifting away on the Mississippi, not because I had my head in the exam and was contemplating Huck Finn escaping down the river, but because I felt like jumping on a raft and escaping down the Mississippi. This comprehensive exam had hung over my head for so long. It had been a year-and-a-half long nightmare. And now the Sword of Damocles would fall in two hours.
The exam was administered in two parts. First we tackled essay questions about literature in general. There must have been 10 of them to tackle, maybe over a five hour period, giving us 30 minutes for each one. The questions could be from any period of literature, any genre including poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction prose, pieces from Old English poets to Shakespeare, Emerson to Pynchon, American or English writers, you name it. They’d given us a 100 “book” list to study upon acceptance to the program. Their idea of a “book” could be anything from a specific novel or collection of an individual author’s poems, to things like the complete works of Shakespeare, or an anthology of 18th-Century drama or Medieval poetry. All of Gilbert and Sullivan. Yeah, those were each one “book.”
All of Shakespeare’s plays. Sheesh. Being able to write comprehensively about Shakespeare’s plays is a lifetime of study and probably then some. Forget the other 99 books.
The only question I remember was to discuss the symbolism of the A in The Scarlet Letter. You know. The Adultery label is an obvious first step in setting up the answer. Then, of course, they want more. How some of the townsfolk begin to say it stands for Angel, for instance. What is a label and what does labeling signify? And anything else you can pull out of the depths of English majorly consciousness. Yada yada yada.
Some ten years later, when I was back at my high school alma mater, I was asked by a couple of my students to play Roger Chillingworth, the charming husband of the heroine Hester Prynne, in a dramatic adaptation of book.
Interesting, I thought, that my students see me as an appropriate person to play this dark and twisted man. I wonder if I come off that way in class.
Nevertheless, I took the part. Every night at rehearsal I would relive that question about the scarlet A. And even now I relive my favorite lines:
Ah, Hester, I might have known that when I came out of the vast and dismal forest and entered into this settlement of Christian men, the very first object to meet my eyes would be thyself, standing up, a statue of sin before the people.
Yeah, some things are easy to remember, some so easy to forget.
This first part of the exam, easy to forget. Why it was not more memorable is probably because I dug a black hole in my memory all the faster and deeper to forget the tortuous event as immediately as possible.
After a lunch break where really, who could eat anything, we were kindly invited back for act two, an in depth analysis of a specific poem. Again, it could be from any period of British or American literature. I could not freaking believer that I actually recognized the poem. They’d given us D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake.” It was as though the forces of the universe had converged for a moment.
My flight home for the winter break was the following Tuesday. Monday I was drinking beer in the student union when one of my friends stopped by.
“Lanning, I couldn’t find you at graduation on Sunday. Where were you?”
Again, the exam had been on Saturday. Plenty of us had taken it. I’d assumed it would be a while before the graders could plow through them.
“But the exam was Saturday,” I said. “They wouldn’t even have the results by Sunday.”
He laughed. “That’s not how it works. The department submits the names of everyone taking the comprehensives. You graduate the following day, yesterday, and if when they finish grading the exams you’ve failed, then they rescind your diploma and you have to sit for the exam at the end of the following semester.”
Huh. I figured that must be tough for families that flew in for graduation only to find out they’d have to make the trip back the following semester.
“Ah well,” I said, “no one was coming to see me graduate anyway.”
Which was true. Not a single person. Not that even I knew about it happening. Still, no one would have come.
And then I flew home. I received a letter saying I’d passed, and I returned to Madison at the beginning of January 1978.
So that’s 1977 in a nutshell, and here’s where the story ends for now.
Except for two things. First, I’ve already written a memoir covering the years from my undergraduate days through 1987. The stories of the overlapping years from that book and this one are mostly different ones, though, so I’m glad I had enough material to write about other events, for the most part.
The second thing is this. A friend of mine who’s been following what I’m writing here asked, “You start off with your birth, but you never said anything about birthdays. It might be interesting to mark your growing up with birthdays besides your age or your year in school.”
Hmmm. Birthdays. Interesting? Okay.
I can tell you that I’ve not celebrated many of them with any kind of fanfare. There was probably something for my 1st, 2nd, and 3rdbirthdays, but I do not remember. My memory begins with my family having a cake with a merry-go-round atop it for my 4th birthday, then there was a disastrous party for 5th. That was the end of investing in parties for my parents. Not just big ones, but all of them.
The next time I celebrated was my 20th birthday in 1974 with Ariel, then my 24th in Madison in 1978, my 30th back in Honolulu in 1984, and my 31st in 1985. 1985 was the last one. Not counting the first three then, I’ve celebrated my birthday six times.
I’m not big on birthdays. My whole class was invited to my 5thbirthday party. They all came, brought me gifts, but I had a full-blown panic attack right before the first on them arrived. I spent the whole time in bed while my mom entertained all of them. Fortunately they left the gifts even though none of them saw me that day.
That was the last time we celebrated my birthday at home. My folks were afraid, I think, that there’d be a repeat performance if I invited anyone over. Why they stopped having parties for me with just our family, I’m not sure.
No matter. I don’t like birthdays very much. On the the 24th in Madison and the 30th back in Honolulu, the women I celebrated with announced that we were splitting up. Yeah, that’s right. Six birthdays celebrated, and on two of them I got dumped. One right while we were eating. At least the other woman waited until I dropped her off to say it was over between us.
Here’s a good way to look at the numbers. Six birthdays, two girlfriends gone, equals a .333 average. If I were playing baseball and that were my batting average, I’d be on top of the world. But this was the love game, and a .333 average is pretty frightening.
The last one in 1985 was the best. I liked the woman very much. She said she wanted to take me somewhere to surprise me. Now given my history with being surprised by women on my birthday, I’m sure you can understand that I was a bit fearful on what might happen.
She picked me up and drove me to the airport. This was back when it was actually fun to go to the airport. No, we were not traveling anywhere. The surprise was that we would be eating at my favorite restaurant there.
I was amazed that she remembered how much I loved drinking at that restaurant. I’d told her I could sit there for hours watching the planes take off.
That was a wonderful night. And no, she did not tell me it was over between us. But it was. Even though she was contemplating divorce, she ended up trying to give it another shot with her husband. The reconciliation was successful. They lived, I believe, happily ever after.
Okay, that’s it for me. National Novel Writing Month has been good for me. Getting this all out, seeing it on paper, that’s always a gratifying experience. This perhaps might not qualify in some critic’s minds as a “novel.” Potato, po-tah-to. No matter to me. That label does not signify.
Everyone has a lifetime of stories worth telling. I highly recommend, NaNoWriMo or no, that you give writing them a try. It’s like walking. It’s one step at a time. You lay down one word and then another follows. Your kids, your grandchildren, and every descendant on down in perpetuity will be so glad to have a record of the stories of your life.
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Aloha #WriterFriday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece on your site and link back to me so I can read it, or just leave it as a comment below. I’d love to see what you come up with : )