HOMEWORK HELPER, A MOTHER’S DAY STORY

Our son, Sam, is an excellent student. He’s now in a PhD program at an illustrious university. However, when he was young, his intellectual ability rarely extended to artistic creation. Although we happily hang a Halloween-themed painting by him in our garage gallery, there are more bad memories than good from the era when he produced “projects” for school. By the time he was in fifth or sixth grade, we couldn’t stand to see him suffer. My wife, Katie, and I abandoned the traditional viewpoint that a student is responsible for all his own work; Sam received as much parental or sibling assistance as necessary to survive what we concluded was a silly, system-wide preoccupation with paper, scissors and glue.

Katie, an educator, and a person without a scintilla of chicanery in her arsenal, initially struggled with the decision to relieve Sam’s burden.

“Isn’t this cheating?” she asked. “Will it ruin his sense of responsibility?”

“I don’t think he’ll be ruined,” I said. “He still does all his other work. He’s learning disabled in arts and crafts. Wouldn’t it be wrong to deny him assistance?”

“So you don’t have a problem with this?” she asked, seeking confirmation, as she colored in the background in a workbook Sam had to illustrate.

“Absolutely not,” I said.

After all, in truth, I’d once received a little parental assistance myself.

*****

When I took mid-level (not for the brainiacs) biology in ninth grade at Friends’ Academy, the teacher was legendary; he’d single-handedly comprised the biology department for over thirty years. Mr. Farrington, white-haired and elfin, was a stern and serious academician. Accordingly, besides biology teacher, his position was Dean of Students. In that capacity, he handled matters of discipline and played a large role in determining where students applied to college. No, Mr. Farrington was not a man to mess with.

I’m not proud to admit that, in my teenage years, I resisted knowledge in subjects outside my core interests of English, history and music. I still apply some degree of willful ignorance, like a Republican presidential candidate, to a wealth of subjects. Biology, along with anything mathematical, was way out in my mental periphery.

Under Mr. Farrington’s steely gaze, the dissection of worms and frogs alarmed me without interesting me. And genetics? Forget it. He shook his head with incomprehension when my undistinguished classmates or I failed to “get it.” His classroom and walls were festooned with posters and projects produced by his more elite students, the “Section One” people, whom he delightedly steered towards his Ivy League contacts.

Unfortunately, while Mr. Farrington lectured, my mind usually drifted to the baseball field. He caught me flat-footed and spluttering the several times he called on me. I hunkered down in the hopes of avoiding his notice. An impressive student of the sciences I was not.

*****

The culmination of the year, and a third of our grade, depended upon the creation of an individual herbarium by each student, a miniature replica of a wild scene of flora and fauna, set inside glass, usually fish-tank-sized. I stressed over the project for several weeks, unsure where to even begin. Though I rarely involved my parents in the details of my schoolwork, I must have expressed my fears effectively because all I remember, to my immense relief, is that my mother took on the project as though her life depended on it.

After several visits to the hardware and plant stores, and hours spent around the dining room table, during which I handed my mother pieces like a nurse assisting a doctor, she’d created a display worthy of a natural history museum. Having seen similar quality on Mr. Farrington’s shelf, it didn’t occur to me this might present a problem. Vaguely aware there might be moral implications surrounding this matter, I chose to ignore them. I felt that I was not a “bad” person and I knew my mother was not a “bad” person, and I was unconcerned about this becoming a habit. I delivered the herbarium with a sigh of relief and then forgot about it. A passing grade in biology was assured, I thought, and that had been my only concern.

*****

I was taken aback several days later when my mother told me she’d been called by Mr. Farrington’s office to accompany me to a meeting with Mr. Farrington. I hoped, somehow, that his intention was to congratulate me for a job well done, but I wasn’t so naïve as to not feel nervous.

“What will we say,” I asked her, “if Mr. Farrington asks who made the herbarium?”

“I’m not going to lie,” said my mother. “But I’ll tell him you played a large role.”

“I’m not sure handing you stuff qualifies as a ‘large role,’” I said.

“We’ll just have to see,” she said. “You might have to re-do the whole thing and accept the consequences.”

My dread rose as we arrived at Mr. Farrington’s office and saw a sour expression on his usually impassive face. “My” herbarium sat on his desk between us.

“Mrs. Sanders,” he began, addressing my mother as though I weren’t present. “I’m afraid your son has violated a vital aspect of the honor system at Friends’ Academy.”

I turned pale, but my mother remained cool, merely raising an eyebrow to allow Mr. Farrington to continue.

“It is clear to me that Stuart PURCHASED this herbarium from a store,” he said.

“He ABSOLUTELY did not PURCHASE it,” said my mother firmly. “I would never allow such a thing.”

Mr. Farrington turned his gaze to me. “Well,” he said, “it’s just that this herbarium is professional in quality, worthy of a top Section One student, and Stuart has not previously shown such abilities.”

“Perhaps he was inspired,” interjected my mother, never a fan of the caste system at the school.

I lowered my eyes to look at the floor. I feared my mother might have gone too far. I certainly didn’t want Mr. Farrington to expect “inspired” work from me on a regular basis. Mr. Farrington remained silent for a long moment. Perhaps, the actual explanation occurred to him –- he was a smart man — and he weighed how much of a confrontation he deemed worthwhile.

My heart beat hard in my chest as several seconds seemed to last several hours. Finally, he merely shook his head, thanked us for coming in, and congratulated me on my excellent work. He addressed my mother, in a neutral tone: “You should be very proud.”

*****

“Phew,” I whispered, when we’d closed the office door behind us and hustled down the hallway.

“There’s a lesson to be learned from this,” said my mother.

“To always do your own work?” I asked.

“To not do too good a job when you do your kids’ work,” she said.

“What kind of a lesson is that to give to your child?” I asked, amazed, but also amused.

“A practical lesson,” she said.

As a parent, I’ve heeded that lesson several times over the years, sparingly, when somewhat, arguably, possibly appropriate.


THE GREATEST HITS OF 1720

We recently attended a harpsichord concert on campus at UNC. Two men played three-hundred-year-old music on a one-hundred-year-old instrument. The results were magical. One might wonder: “Who goes to such a concert?” The answer is: “Hardly anyone.” We were among eleven audience members marooned in a sea of ninety chairs in an otherwise charming, sun-splashed hall.

Later in the week, over 50,000 gathered several blocks away to watch UNC’s disgraced football team tackle a similar outfit from Florida State. Though a sports fan myself, I find the disparity disheartening. I won’t belabor the sad state of our culture. That’s a cliché’. Rather, I’ll focus on the harpsichord.

*****

In my formative years, during the 1960’s, my music resources were relatively meager. There was radio and there were vinyl records. I didn’t control the radio in our household. My father turned the dial to KYW, “News Radio 1060,” and my mother sometimes changed it to WFLN, “The Classical Station.” A child of limited imagination and even less rebellion, I never considered exploring alternatives. And, as a person of limited means — my weekly allowance of $.25 went towards baseball cards – I didn’t buy records.

Instead, I listened to whatever happened to be on. Thanks to KYW, compared to any other pre-teen in existence, I excelled at current events, traffic and weather. From WFLN, I formed distinct opinions about composers. I preferred orchestral pieces and piano concertos from the big guys, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I was less enthused about solo pieces, opera, or relatively dissonant classical music composed after 1900.

In the living room, a state-of-the-art stereo system built by my brother, Barry  (speakers hidden in an inactive fireplace!), played our limited variety of vinyl recordings. Several Herb Alpert albums whetted a taste for pop. Broadway shows, such as: Camelot, Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story filled my consciousness, as well. Unbidden melodies and lyrics still pop into my head at any time via synapses first established in 1962. And two records featured my father’s favorite, the Yiddish ballads of Theodore Bikel.   To my recollection, my father never operated the stereo and I never volunteered to play his records for him. Even a teenager as compliant as me had a limit. (Never mind the issue of whether he was unable or unwilling to operate the stereo – that question never occurred to me – perhaps there are several potential stories there).

*****

I recall the first record that was “mine.” For approximately my tenth birthday, my mother combined my penchant for puns with my eighteenth-century sensibility and bought me a collection called “Go for Baroque.” It featured harpsichord pieces by J.S. Bach and Rameau, a comparatively unknown French composer. The tinkling of the harpsichord captivated me.

At the time, I “studied” piano with a teacher named Mr. Koffs, whom I called “Cootie Koffs.” Not that I deserved better, but he smacked my fingers for mistakes and generally contributed more to misery than to mastery. I craved the special baroque sound.

“Why can’t I play a harpsichord?” I asked. “I’d even practice.”

“No one plays a harpsichord,” said my mother, on the rare occasions my question elicited a response.

By the time I was eleven, piano lessons succumbed to my flood of complaints and my drought of practice. Thinking I’d have better luck channeling the Tijuana Brass, I requested trumpet lessons, instead. After three untalented years, during which I sapped the enthusiasm of my trumpet instructors and myself, I concluded my youthful career at the low end of mediocre on both instruments. Yet, I retained my eclectic tastes, more or less spanning from 17th-Century Europe to 20th-century faux-Mexico.

*****

As a shy, young lawyer alone in the suburbs in my late twenties, I had an abundance of free time. After all, Ridgewood, New Jersey wasn’t “hopping” like a big city and I wasn’t exactly a “player” myself. Happening to hear a harpsichord on the radio one day, it occurred to me I might arrange the lessons I’d always wanted. In an unusual burst of initiative, I looked through the musical instruments section of the Yellow Pages (for younger readers, a paper telephone directory, like a fossil version of Google) and, sure enough, a man in Northern Jersey advertised “Harpsichords, for Sale or Lease.”

I called Ed Brewer, who turned out to be renowned in obscure circles, and learned I could rent a small instrument for $63 a month.

“Does anyone give lessons?” I asked.

“There’s one fellow,” he said. “Do you know where Ridgewood is?”

“I live in Ridgewood,” I said, amazed.

“Well, then,” said Ed. “That’s good luck. Call Jack Rodland, the organist at West Side Church.”

I did. As the music director of the largest church in town, Jack tended to see things in spiritual terms, not luck. When I described on the phone why I’d called, he said: “I’ve been waiting for your call.”

“Did Ed Brewer tell you I’d be calling?” I asked, surprised.

“No, the Lord did,” he said.

“Hunh?” I said, or a similar sound.

Jack explained: “We have a beautiful, antique harpsichord moldering away in the basement. I want to cry whenever I see it. I recently asked the Church board for funds to restore and tune it, but was told I need at least one student. Your call is a blessing.”

To say the least, Jack and I viewed the world differently. Considering my skill level, connecting my musicality to the word “blessing” intimidated me to the point of near-paralysis. Still, how could I back out of a God-ordained activity?

We arranged to meet at the church two weeks later, by which time Jack was confident the church harpsichord would be tuned for him to give lessons. Meanwhile, Ed Brewer delivered a modest, recently constructed rental harpsichord to my home. It resembled a pine coffin more than a musical instrument. Still, it contained fifty-five brown and black keys (none of those black and white keys for me!) and made the tinkling sound I loved. For two weeks, leading up to my first lesson, I spent part of each evening alternately trying to recreate the background of “Scarborough Fair,” and the introduction to “The Addams Family.”

*****

It may surprise some readers, but playing the harpsichord did not immediately make me a girl magnet. I commenced weekly lessons at the Church with Jack – a patient and gentle teacher—and practiced diligently each evening after work. After six months of steady play, I’d become almost respectable. I mastered several minuets by Bach and also the Rameau variations I’d listened to years before. Jack became so enthused that he asked if I’d play before a church service.

“You mean, like, in front of people?” I asked, stricken.

“Yes,” he said. “It will be a treat.”

In my mind, I thought: “It will be a catastrophe.” But Jack was so earnest!

Again, the discrepancy between our worldviews became apparent. I managed to stall Jack’s urge for my public debut for several weeks but feared I couldn’t last forever. After all, my hobby intersected with Jack’s profession and he had a Board to impress. I dedicated a number of sleepless hours to the situation, namely: “How do I get out of this?”

One morning, at work, the phone rang. My deus ex machina came in the form of a phone call from a woman who asked me out on a blind date. We hit it off immediately and my practice time dwindled. For the first several dates, I didn’t disclose how I’d spent the preceding six months of evenings. Insecure to the utmost, I feared revealing myself to be steeped in the 1700’s. Her first visit to my home, however, brought my harpsichord habit to the fore. Instead of being turned off by it, it turned out my new girlfriend had been an All-State oboist in high school. We had baroque-era instruments in common! In short order, Katie and I were married, we sold our respective houses, we had a child, and music took a backseat. My harpsichord lessons dwindled to once a month then ceased. Life had moved on.

*****

Jack Rodland was completely supportive when I explained the reason for my change in focus.

“You’ve moved to a higher calling,” he said, speaking of my new love life.

Only months after I saw him for the last time, I heard that Jack, a man no older than fifty, had died. I felt devastated. Had he been ill? It occurred to me I knew nothing of Jack’s life outside of our lessons. My only small consolation was to recall his delight at having brought the harpsichord up from the basement. Also, having a student, even one of limited ability, had pleased him.

I’d deeply appreciated Jack’s gentle teaching and understanding. Due to its constant need for tuning and my lack of play, we returned my rented harpsichord and eventually acquired a piano in the unrewarded hope that our children might be interested. After we sold it several years ago, we bought an electronic keyboard for those rare, once-a-month urges that I have to play. When I do play, I always remember Jack for a moment. Though the keyboard can mimic hundreds of instruments, the harpsichord is usually my first choice.  And Katie and I still seek out those rare opportunities to hear live harpsichord music.


OPENING DAY

I failed to watch a baseball game today. I tried, but after two innings, I found the pace unbearable. As for viewing sports, I’ve become used to the excitement of basketball or the uninterrupted flow of soccer. My inability to sit and concentrate, as each pitch hits the catcher’s mitt and, in turn, is analyzed into submission with the high-tech tools of modern television coverage, disappoints me. I wonder if I’ve become unable to appreciate the slower-paced, nuanced aspects of life. I fear I’m no longer a person who can “stop to smell the roses.” Perhaps, I’ve “given in to the frenetic pace of modern life.” I wonder, am I a traitor to my younger self?

*****

Baseball played a huge part in my early existence.  I recall being exposed to basketball and to football, to hockey and to tennis. But only baseball captured my imagination. And when I say imagination, I mean it. My best, or, at least, most dependable friends in a neighborhood devoid of children, were named Sookie, Musselemy and Fireball Conky. Each loved baseball as much as I did and were available to play every day. They didn’t exist in a physical sense.

I’ve hesitated to mention my three friends in previous writing lest I reveal a major psychosis. But an hour of research has convinced me that, if not quite “normal,” having imaginary friends in the first decade of life is not unusual. And, no, they didn’t accompany me to high school. By the time I joined a little league team at nine with real, live teammates, my imaginary playmates were absent from my daily thoughts. I admit, however, that when I pitched side-armed, like Fireball Conky, or blasted a ball far, like Musselemy, their characteristics occasionally crossed my mind.

*****

Every fan remembers attending their first major league baseball game. At least, I expect they do. Mine was opening day, 1964. The Phillies played the Mets, and my mother took me to Connie Mack Stadium to see it.   I recall her paying a quarter to a street urchin straight out of Dickens to “watch our car” a few blocks from the stadium.

I couldn’t have been more excited and nervous, both about the game and the fate of the car, respectively. My fears about the car disappeared, however, when I stepped through the stadium concourse and beheld the shocking expanse of green grass before me, brilliant even in the early spring chill of North Philadelphia. I’d never seen anything so beautiful.

As to the game, Roy Sievers was the Mets’ third baseman and Roy McMillan was their shortstop. Funny, I thought, to have two guys named Roy. The Phillies had a hotshot rookie third baseman named Richie Allen and a left fielder, Wes Covington, whose tongue lolled permanently outside his mouth. We sat behind third base, which might explain why I recall the players on that side of the field.

Only five years short of its overdue demolition, Connie Mack Stadium led the world in support poles – you had to crane your neck around them in order to follow occasional moments of action. I wore my baseball glove the entire game, of course, in the hopes of catching a foul ball. Even at age 7, I was aware of the remoteness of my chances. But, just as an atheist might wonder “what if I’m wrong?” I remained ready, just in case.

The final score was 5-3. I think the Phillies won though it was less important to me than simply being there. I now know the 1964 Phillies were to experience a disastrous, Titanic-like sinking six months later, when they lost ten games in a row and tumbled out of first place on the last weekend of the season. In April, with that particular iceberg still invisible, we soaked in optimism and the promise of warmer days.

*****

In that era, my passion for baseball lasted year-round, indoors and out. Sitting cross-legged on my bedroom carpet, I played “spinner baseball” for hours. The board game, which I’d received as a birthday present, consisted of a piece of round cardboard with a metal arrow in the middle. For each batter in a line-up of real or imaginary players, I smacked the “spinner” with my finger and it circled, like a tiny roulette wheel, until it stopped on a result, be it fly out, ground out, strikeout, single, double, triple, walk or home run. I drafted fantasy teams of real and imagined players and kept meticulous, hand-written records on pieces of cardboard obtained from my father’s dry-cleaned shirts. Little did I know I’d hit upon a concept that would, fifty years later, become a national obsession. This activity made me a savant at figuring batting averages in my head. Did that help my career thirty years later when I estimated mortgage payments? Absolutely.

Outdoors, winter didn’t stop my exertions. Unless it rained or snowed significantly, I threw a ball against a target on the back wall of our house every day. I threw even if I had to shovel two or three inches of snow to access my imagined pitching mound. As a result, by the time I reached high school, I had major league control. If only my pitches also had major league speed, movement and spin. In an effort to develop those side benefits of arm strength, I spent the winter of my senior year throwing a heavy softball against the wall. It weighed twice as much as a baseball. As I’d hoped, my velocity soared when I switched back to a baseball in the spring. Alas, my naïve and unprofessional training regimen also ruined the tendons in my elbow and, in short order, my baseball career.

*****

Even before my elbow woes had moved me from a pitcher to an underhand-throwing outfielder, my high school playing career was dispiriting. I was the MVP for two years at the Friends’ Academy, but that was an accomplishment so easily achieved as to be embarrassing. My teammates matched their lack of ability only with their lack of interest. The main benefit I derived was that the coach was also my math teacher, and he graded compassionately due to my crucial contributions to our rare victories.

When I headed to college, I considered myself a baseball player who also played soccer “to stay in shape.” After success on the soccer field in the fall and continued elbow woes in the spring, however, I reluctantly put away my mitt. Thereafter, several factors caused my childhood love of baseball to dissipate to no more than an occasional glance at the standings in a newspaper. Sixteen major league teams in my youth now totaled thirty.   Due primarily to free agency, players were hard to track. As an adult, with work, family and other interests, baseball no longer had room in my life. As a parent, I thought my children might share my childhood passion; all three pronounced baseball “boring.”

*****

Why is the game now so unwatchable for me? I thought back to my viewing habits in the 1960’s, from about age six to eleven. All week, during the spring and summer, I eagerly anticipated the once-a-week televised game. I awoke on Sunday with sweaty palms and pounding heart, excited for the 1:00 p.m. start. I’d set myself up on the lounge chair in the den in front of our rabbit-eared, sixteen-inch black-and-white. I’d carefully place a tall iced coffee beside me on a tray table for two hours of entertainment. I remember the jingle for Ballentine Beer played between every inning.

Byrum Saam and Richie Ashburn were the Phillies’ announcers. When they spoke, I felt I was sitting at the stadium with two patient and friendly men with inexhaustible knowledge to impart. Their conversations meandered from anecdote to anecdote and only occasionally focused on the game action that unfolded before them at a leisurely pace. They allowed me to listen to their conversation and secure for myself a place on a continuum that encompassed the past, the present and, I expected, the future. There were no exploding scoreboards in the early 60’s, no hi-tech analysis, and few replays. In the background noise, amidst sparsely filled stands, you heard vendors hawking popcorn.

*****

Besides the glitz, noise and technology of modern broadcasts, what’s changed?   Among many factors, batters adjust their gloves and elbow pads, accouterments that didn’t exist in 1963, between each pitch. They also repeatedly step away from the plate, though I read that baseball is trying to curtail that habit in order to lop a few minutes from the bloated, three-hour games. Pitchers dawdle and shake off signs from the catcher. Batters perceive more value in patience than in power, watching pitches, fouling them off. The cumulative effect is to lengthen the game. Add commercial breaks between innings that are now twice as long, and you have not so much a viewing opportunity as an ordeal.

In addition, there’s nothing special about seeing a game on television. Cable broadcasts all 162 games a season for every team. ESPN endlessly replays notable hits or catches.   Even the umpires’ calls are subject to review. Yes, it’s good to “get the call correct,” but some of the mystery and chance has been taken from baseball. There’s no reason to watch for three hours – the highlights will be viewable at the touch of a button.

To see a game in person, one pays more for a decent ticket than for a Broadway show. Most seats are filled with corporate guests, not a child and his parent. With few exceptions, the modern stadiums are filled with artificial noise and massive electronic scoreboards. Every possible statistic is provided to the fan. As in a modern bowling alley where the score is calculated electronically, there’s no reason to invest personal calculations to the experience.

The players are no longer the “everyman” of physical proportions they seemed to me in 1964. Now, they are millionaires enclosed in bodies sculpted by nutrition, science and sometimes more. How ironic that they appeared like gods to me when I was young. Now, they strike me as terribly human, whenever their public relations handlers let them down.

Based upon my analysis, I have decided to absolve myself of guilt. I’m not a traitor. Under worthy circumstances, I’m able to slow things down.   Mostly, it’s baseball that’s changed.


COUNTRY CLUB POLITICS

We live in a community constructed around the contours of a golf course.   The topography is beautiful and it’s a nice place to live, regardless of one’s feelings about golf. Since I’ve quit the sport for life due to extreme frustration, we’re not “members” of the club. Still, we occasionally join members at the clubhouse for dinner. Most are impressive and accomplished people, enjoyable to be around. We discuss children, sports and the weather. We compare restaurants, travel and traffic. We do NOT discuss politics.

Recently, my wife, Katie and I were invited to dinner at the clubhouse with three other couples. When we arrived, however, three of the eight seats at our table were empty. We learned that two husbands and one wife were elsewhere in the building attending a fund-raiser for a Republican congressional candidate. The wife sitting to my right at the table, Amanda, told the rest of us she doesn’t agree with her husband’s politics, so she didn’t attend, but she expected them shortly. In accordance with the local etiquette, we stated we wouldn’t discuss the fund-raiser when the three attendees arrived.

*****

To our surprise, however, when Tom, Mary and Amanda’s husband, Harry arrived, they burst with missionary zeal. Not only did they wish to discuss politics, they appeared to have been enlisted to do so, to bring enlightenment to the apathetic or, worse, progressive-leaning in their midst.

“No one could be happy with the way America is going,” declared Harry, the most excited of the trio, as he sat down to my left. “Don’t you think it’s time we got this country turned around? We’re under siege!”

I had a sinking feeling my loose tongue would not obey my cautious brain.   “I don’t see the pitchforks,” I said, gesturing out the window to the sun-splashed golf course, just as a blue heron took flight over a lake in the foreground.

“You know what I mean,” said Harry. “The country is going down the tubes.   We’re not where we want to be.”

I realized he was repeating parts of the presentation he’d just heard, but I couldn’t resist responding literally. “We’re sitting here at dinner in a lovely setting. All of us are retired or semi-retired, without financial worry. Isn’t this exactly where we want to be?”

Harry rolled his eyes. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

“No, I definitely do not,” I admitted.

*****

For the past couple of years, while the national political scene has become increasingly polarized, I’ve tried without success to comprehend the Republican mindset. I miss the old days, about twenty years ago, when the difference in parties often hinged on nothing more than disagreement about spending and taxation policy. Now, there’s a disconnection with reality on the Republican side. For sure, the Democratic point of view is also full of inconsistencies. But I’m familiar with those from growing up in a Democratic household and attending a Quaker school. I don’t condone Democratic inconsistencies, but I do understand them.

For instance, my father, who died in 1994, was nearly a socialist in terms of economic sympathies. Yet, as a victim of numerous robberies and burglaries at his clothing store in Philadelphia, he rabidly supported a “tough-on-crime”, right-wing mayor. In addition, while he hated the Vietnam War as much as Abby Hoffman did, his personal sense of fastidiousness caused him outrage whenever he saw longhaired or even sloppily dressed men.   In the 1960’s and 70’s, in particular, he was appalled on a regular basis. I didn’t always agree with his hard-to-reconcile positions, but I comprehended them. They sprung rationally from his experience or personality.

But modern-day Republicans? As Harry asserted, I don’t get it. I wonder about it. I shake my head about it. I can’t figure it out. In my prosperous suburban milieu, I can’t find a Republican who admits to supporting the stated positions of their chosen representatives. Lovely people to share dinner with, their preferred politicians seem so hard-hearted and willfully ignorant.  How can that be? In Harry, Mary and Tom, I saw the opportunity to gain an understanding.

“Let me play the devil’s advocate,” I said, as innocently as possible.

“Sure, bring it on,” said Harry, spoiling for a debate.

Mary and Tom, sitting across from me, regarded me sympathetically, like a poor student in need of assistance.

I thought I’d tread carefully to begin, with something easy. “Do you believe a woman is equal to a man and should be paid the same?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Harry.

“Sure,” said Mary, as though my question were the most naïve she’d ever heard.

Tom nodded.

“Should a woman have control over her own medical decisions?” I asked.

“I know what you’re getting at,” Mary jumped in. “I know it’s not part of my religion, since I’m Catholic, but I completely believe a woman should be able to make her own decisions about abortion.”

“Wow, you get double points for that,” I said, smiling.

“We have daughters and grand-daughters,” said Tom. “Of course we think they’re entitled to equal pay and to make their own decisions.”

“What about gay people?” I asked. “Are they equal, too?”

“Of course,” said Mary. “Even if you don’t actively support gay marriage, why would you actively oppose it?”

“Good question,” I said. “I can’t figure that out either.”

*****

I became aware the rest of the table had paused to listen. Katie, to my far right, made a facial expression I took to mean: “Are you sure you want to do this?” Intrigued, or reckless, I plunged further: “Do you think there should be reasonable background checks to prevent domestic abusers, mental patients and ex-felons from obtaining guns?”

“Absolutely,” said Harry.

“That’s just common sense,” added Tom.

“What about fracking?” I asked.

“I’m all for it,” said Tom.

“It’s for the economy,” said Harry. “And energy independence. Are you against it?” he asked me.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate in North Carolina,” I said.

“Why not?” asked Mary.

“Because we have a large population, a tourist economy, sandy soil conducive to leakage, and only a minimal amount of oil or gas,“ I said.

“Well, is it EVER acceptable in your view?” asked Harry, warming to posing the questions.

“It might be appropriate in North Dakota,” I said, “since there’s tons of oil there, almost no people, no tourists and the soil isn’t sandy and permeable. Still, even there, the chemicals should be disclosed.”

“Agreed,” said Tom.  “You know, we Republicans do care about the environment. You can’t just roll back all the protections.”

“We breathe the air and drink the water, too, you know,” said Mary.

“See,” said Harry, beaming, gesturing warmly to the entire table. “We can have a serious, political conversation here. We can reach reasonable conclusions. We can respect each other.”

“Absolutely,” I said, wondering when they would veer off to major disagreement.  “On to another subject.”

Harry’s wife, Amanda, patted my right arm. “You go get ‘em,” she said. “I have to go through this every day at home.” Everyone laughed.

I turned back to my three-person panel. “What about the concept of ‘clean coal’ and the alleged ‘war on coal’ that Republicans blame on Obama?”

“Haha,” said Tom. “No one’s stupid enough to think coal can ever be clean.”

“But why do Republican candidates claim it’s wonderful?” I asked. “So they get elected,” said Harry. “They have to say that stuff.”

“And the war on coal?” I asked.

“Same thing,” said Tom. “You gotta get the votes. The birthers and the crazies love that stuff.”

“Would you agree cheap natural gas has more to do with the plight of the coal industry than Obama?” I asked.

“Of course,” said Mary. “But we do have to protect the people in the coal states. Their economies are bad.”

“That’s right,” said Harry. “What are those poor people in Kentucky and West Virginia going to do without coal mining?”

“I suppose their economies have done fabulously in the past 150 years WITH coal-mining?” I said.

“Oh, there you go,” said Tom. “Getting a little sarcastic.”

“Well?” I asked. “What do you suggest those people do for a living?” said Harry.

“Perhaps,” I said, “instead of strip-mining the tops of their mountains, companies could develop wind turbines or solar panels and construct the necessary grid connections. Those projects would create thousands of jobs, without spills and without explosions. Did you know there are now more solar workers in America than coal workers?”

All three of them looked at me wordlessly. Finally, Tom asked: “Are you serious?”

I nodded, but before I could say: “You can look it up,” Mary began to explain her motivations for supporting the GOP.   “There are two main things: securing our border and education.”

“And don’t forget welfare fraud,” said Harry.

“And the need for more military spending,” said Tom.

“Whoa, one at a time,” I said, smiling. “Let’s discuss the border.”

“We have to know who’s coming in,” said Harry. “Anyone could be pouring across the Mexican border. Democrats don’t take that seriously.”

“You do know Obama’s presided over more deportations than any other president?” I said.

“I’ve heard that,” said Tom. “But he sets the wrong tone, with the amnesty and all.”

“Terrorists are crossing over every day,” said Harry.

I had to ask: “How many of the 9-11 terrorists were from Mexico?”

“Oh, you’re good,” said Harry, admiringly. “Very good. But if we had a wall at the border, we’d worry a lot less about bombers.”

“You mean like the Tim McVeigh?” I asked. “I doubt he chose tacos as his final meal.”

“Very funny,” said Tom. “We have to know who’s in the country. We have to fingerprint them.”

“I guess that would be helpful,” I said. “But the FBI knew about the Boston Marathon guys. They ‘checked them out.’ It didn’t prevent the bombing.”

“Security will never be perfect,” said Harry. “I still think the first step is to secure the border.”

“And who’s going to build the wall?” I asked. “When it’s finished, will the laborers be asked to finish painting on the Mexican side and stay there? Who will pick our fruit? Who will mow our lawns? Who will clean our houses?”

“Those are problems,” said Mary. “Would you deport all those people?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Tom. “We need some way to legalize them.”

“Did the candidate say that in his presentation?” I asked.

“He can’t SAY that,” said Harry. “Everyone understands that.” He gestured to the rest of the dining room, filled with cheerful, prosperous diners.

“After all,” said Mary. “We’re a nation of immigrants.”

*****

My hamburger had grown cold. My sweet potato fries had long ago been stolen by my table-mates. I took a deep breath and plunged in again.

“What’s the Republican solution to education? I read that forty-six states approved of the Common Core standards. And now most Republican-led states are balking. I don’t begin to understand the specific issues, but why did they agree, and now they don’t agree?”

“It has something to do with testing and parent choice,” said Mary.

“Okay. What about them?” I asked.

“I’m not really sure, either,” said Harry. “But we have to put teachers in a position to do a better job. They need to be respected like professionals.”

“You sound like a Democrat,” I said. “Would you support raising their pay?”

“Not with raising taxes,” said Mary. “Nothing can be solved with taxes. As the candidate said, we need to cut waste and fraud.”

“Ah, that’s a good phrase,” I said. “Sounds like the candidate has studied the Fox television talking points.”

“Don’t make fun of Fox,” said Harry. “MSNBC is just as bad.   There’s a lot of waste and fraud in government.”

“Especially welfare fraud,” said Mary.

“And food stamp fraud,” added Tom.

“I don’t condone welfare fraud,” I said.

“And it costs money we could otherwise spend on our military,” said Mary.

“Is that why the GOP proposes to raise military spending while lowering social spending?” I asked.

“That’s right,” said Harry. “We need a strong defense and there’s plenty of money available on the social side.”

“I agree we need an effective military,” I said. “But I suspect fraud and waste in military spending far exceeds welfare fraud in real dollars.”

“Aha, an MSNBC talking point, no doubt,” said Tom.

“Actually,” I said, “no less a hawk than John McCain pointed out that there are billions, with a B, dollars of waste and overruns in our weapons programs. Welfare fraud is measured in thousands and millions.”

“So you think Boeing and Halliburton executives are worse than welfare queens?” said Harry.

“They can be,” I said. “It’s just that when those executives are crooked, we aren’t as interested because they look like us and we’d enjoy dinner or golf with them.”

“That’s very cynical,” said Tom.

“Still true,” I said.

“How do they get away with that?” asked Mary. “Why don’t we hear about that?”

“Could it be because defense contractors make huge political contributions? I don’t think the same could be said of welfare recipients,” I said.

The table quieted for a moment as we concentrated on the dessert menu. The rest of the table had tired of our debate and resumed chatting with each other. I wondered if I’d ever be invited to the club again. Still, I figured I’d gone so far already, I might as well finish the conversation.

“So tell me,” I began, addressing Harry, Mary and Tom. “Your positions deviate from the stated Republican positions on guns, gays, women, fracking and a path towards legal status for undocumented immigrants. Once you verify that military spending is at least as wasteful as welfare spending, you’ll look at that differently, too. None of you profess to be against environmental regulations. How do you support candidates who don’t express any of your relatively progressive positions?”

“Like I said before,” said Tom. “They have to get elected.”

“So what voters are they talking to?” I asked.

“Those people out there,” said Harry, gesturing to the windows. “The people out west, and in the deep south. The ones who like Palin and Cruz, the nut-jobs.”

“So you feel the Republican candidates don’t actually believe what they’re saying,” I said. “They’re just speaking buzzwords to get the votes of the low-information, low-education voters and then, basically, winking at the high-end Republicans like you?”

“Bingo!” said Tom. “That’s what they have to do.”

“So you have no problem with the disconnect between the stated positions of the candidates you support and what you believe to be their real beliefs?” I asked. All three nodded. I found myself where I began. I STILL don’t get it. If there are not rational, real-life explanations for why these intelligent, kind people vote the way they do, are there irrational explanations? What factors might come into play? I hesitate to ponder too deeply lest I dislike my own conclusions. Readers are welcome to weigh in.


RELIGION COMES TO 50th STREET

I grew up in Wynnefield, a tree-lined section of West Philadelphia. Originally settled by William Penn’s physician, Thomas Wynne, it still consists of a variety of housing ranging from row homes to apartment buildings to large single-family homes. Most were constructed in the first half of the twentieth century. My family lived on 50th Street, just one block from a row of mansions on Bryn Mawr Avenue. Like them, our house was clad in Pennsylvania fieldstone and surrounded by mature maple and sycamore trees. But its relatively modest three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths made it a comfortable home, not impressive. Its placement atop an incline made it appear larger than it was.

When I was born in 1956, Wynnefield’s population was as Jewish as any shtetl in pre-War Ukraine. A decade older than I, my siblings attended public school, socialized and suffered through religious education almost exclusively with Jews.  In 1963, however, the first house in the neighborhood sold outside “the community.” As though a race had been started by the crack of a pistol, nearly every other house in the neighborhood sported a “For Sale” sign within weeks. My first-grade class picture from 1962 at Gompers Elementary School, which showed three minority students in a class of 20 gave way to a sixth grade photo wherein I was one of five Caucasians.

“White flight” is a pejorative term. Justifiably. It represents the knee-jerk reaction of racists, or people who are not quite racist, but are still fearful of living amidst people of different appearances or backgrounds. The effects on property values, schools and the sense of community are usually negative. Our property value certainly declined. The new neighbors are vilified without even having a chance to offend. Also unsettled are those who don’t move.  My family, due to some combination of enlightened acceptance of others, or inertia (I prefer the former interpretation) stayed put.

*****

We shared our driveway with a family named Rosen who joined the exodus as though Moses himself were leading it. Almost uniquely, however, the family who bought their home was not from outside “the community.” Rather, my parents learned, the buyer was a young rabbi with a wife and two daughters. In terms of joining Wynnefield’s Jewish community, Harry and Esther Cohen were the last people to purchase tickets on the Titanic.

When I learned our new neighbor was a rabbi, I expected a stern, bookish sort of man. I anticipated having to curtail my endless ball playing in the driveway because he would require quiet. I thought he would wear a yarmulke, sport a beard and, perhaps, a long coat. Wrong, wrong and wrong. Harry was tall and slender, with a clean-shaven face and sandy-colored hair. He was young, affable, and a lover of baseball. He often stopped to talk to me while I played ball in our mutual driveway, but never about religion.   We discussed his beloved St. Louis Cardinals and the two woebegone teams I followed, the Phillies and the Cubs.

The rabbi’s wife, however, though short in stature, was formidable.  Born in Israel, Esther had served in their army before emigrating. Often, people regard a petite veteran, and say: “Hard to imagine she was a soldier.” Once you’d met Esther, you’d be surprised to learn she hadn’t been the commander in charge. With her nasal, accented voice, she dominated her easygoing husband. “Harry, take out the garbage NOW,” she would say. “Harry, don’t forget to be home by six. I mean it.”

*****

My family was chauvinistically Jewish, never failing to tout our kinship to the range of luminaries from Albert Einstein to Leonard Bernstein to Sandy Koufax. Yet, we didn’t attend religious services. The view of organized religion most commonly espoused by my father approximated that of the author, Ambrose Bierce. To paraphrase, “organized religion is the use of fear and hope to explain the unknowable to the ignorant.” Owing mostly to my father’s viewpoint, I also knew that the word “orthodox,” which I understood had something to do with those who took religion seriously, was often connected with the word “lunatic.” Basically, our religious observance involved celebration of all the major food groups, from beef brisket to cheese blintzes to fruit compote, a practice my family sustains.

Still, I thought because our new neighbor was a rabbi, my father would at least be pleased.   It surprised me when he didn’t accord Rabbi Cohen much respect. Instead, he said the rabbi “talked too much.”  Initially, I assumed the lack of reverence derived from the cleric’s relative youth, his mild southern twang or the related unlikelihood that a man of religion could come from Texas.   The subject of religion confused my seven-year-old self. Nowadays, I simply have a somewhat more detailed incomprehension of how people form and sustain their beliefs. After a year or two, I recognized my father’s lack of respect for Rabbi Cohen was not due solely to his personal attributes so much as to the hitherto unknown (to me) distinction between “reformed” and “conservative.” From overhearing my parents talk, particularly my father, it appeared that somewhere beneath Orthodox Judaism (too much) and Conservative Judaism (about right) was “Reformed Judaism,” representing “too little.” Rabbi Cohen led Beth David, the local reformed congregation.

*****

Civility reigned in our little corner of 50th Street, but not warmth. While the Cohen’s shared the driveway and their kitchen door stood just fifteen feet from ours, we never socialized. Besides his stated distaste for his chattiness, my father’s take on Rabbi Cohen was that he was not a “real” rabbi. Beth David stood in the literal and figurative shadow of the Conservative temple, Har Zion. The latter’s massive building was the long-time anchor of Wynnefield’s Jewish community. My impression growing up was that only presumed beatniks or unserious people belonged to Beth David, housed in a modest, former single-family residence.

“What’s so bad about Beth David?” I asked several times over the years.

“It’s reformed,” said my father.

“So?” I said.

“That’s not a real synagogue,” he said.

We never got farther than that. My father’s antipathy towards Reformed Judaism ran deep and shallow at the same time. He felt strongly about it, but couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate why. Though I was too young to press my father, his insistence for “authenticity” rang hollow. It was as though a person with absolutely no interest in baseball passionately hated the designated hitter rule.

*****

My only concerted exposure to our neighbors occurred during my last two years of high school. Their younger daughter enrolled in the Friends’ Academy, the same school I attended; thus, we carpooled every other week. Fortunately, no one paid attention to the arrival of cars at Friends’ Academy as they might have at the entrance to a large public school. As though it weren’t bad enough that my carpool partner was in third grade, Mrs. Cohen delivered me in a powder blue Corvair. I didn’t need Ralph Nadar to tell me that it was unsafe at any speed. It looked funny and smelled funny; I can only hope its fumes didn’t shorten my lifespan in a significant way.

I don’t recall specific discussions with Mrs. Cohen, but I think my parents’ indifference had taken its toll. She made no effort to interact and, being shy myself, the rides were awkward. I sat in the backseat while she tried to communicate with her daughter, an exceptionally silent little girl. After I left home for college, I rarely saw the Cohen’s again except to nod or wave to Esther across the driveway during occasional visits home. If I encountered Harry, we’d cheerfully discuss baseball, at least until his wife rushed him along to work or back inside the house.

*****

When I married at age thirty, we chose to have a rabbi perform the ceremony. I asked my father if I should ask Rabbi Cohen, since he was the only rabbi I knew. “Ecccchhh,” or a sound to that effect, replied my father.  The fact that he didn’t offer an explanation still puzzled me but certainly was consistent. As a result, we enlisted a “Rent-a-Rabbi” closer to where we lived. It’s purely speculation as to what Rabbi Cohen thought about my choice. Perhaps, he felt insulted. Perhaps, he didn’t think about it at all.

In any event, my parents remained neighbors with the Cohen’s for seven more years. By 1994, Har Zion had long since been converted to a Baptist Church and Beth David had become a daycare center. Rabbi Cohen was semi-retired. My father’s death occurred immediately upon moving. My mother asked Rabbi Cohen to lead the funeral service and deliver a eulogy. The rabbi’s performance was dignified and professional. Yet, it may not have been as heart-warming as the audience might have expected from a next-door neighbor of thirty years duration. In a sense, one could call the service “conservative.” In that way, the loquacious rabbi had the final word.


Rabble Rousing

I attended college four or five years too late to participate in anti-Vietnam War demonstrations. And had I been at a hotbed of unrest, like Wisconsin or Columbia, it’s unlikely I would have led a sit-in at a dean’s office or stared down the National Guard. Still, in one college era controversy, I overcame my reticence to bear witness to epic events.
*****

Midway through my comfortable first year living in a leafy coed dorm at Dickinson College I learned, to my dismay, that sophomore men had to live in one of the ten houses comprising the fraternity quadrangle, whether or not they belonged to a fraternity. This system had developed in an era when near-unanimous fraternity membership prevailed. By 1975, however, things had changed. Dickinson’s male population split evenly between “Greeks” and independents.
Hostility festered between the two camps like an open wound. Greeks openly referred to independents as “geeks,” a term suggesting a circus freak. Independents showed their disdain for the inanities of “brotherhood” with imitations of secret handshakes and lingo. Fraternity members, for instance, scored life’s experiences on a spectrum from nega-dece (not decent) to dece (okay) to gungabo-dece (the best) and every sort of dece in between. To mock fraternity members was not even a challenge to my friends and me. We described everything, from classes to dinner vegetables, as somewhere on the dece scale. We called our fake fraternity Kappa Wu.
An undercurrent of tension permeated the College cafeteria where factions self-segregated at their unofficial, but unchanging tables, the locations handed down by generations of students. Similarly, in some classrooms, “brothers” sat among brothers and “independents” among independents. Segregation was pervasive, like at schools in the Jim Crow south, albeit without serious national significance. (For that matter, most of the few African-American students at Dickinson also sat at “their” tables in the cafeteria and self-segregated in classrooms, too.)
*****

I played on the soccer team. One fraternity, Phi Psi, dominated the program. Though I hadn’t participated in any social interactions to attract a bid, midway through my freshman year, Phi Psi invited me to join. Certainly, my receipt of a handwritten invitation occurred solely due to the likelihood I would be the goaltender for the next three years.
Fraternity life held no appeal to me. I had two real, biological brothers and found the concept of referring to near-strangers as my brothers to be silly. Also, I perceived no value to the fraternity system except as a cost-effective way to enjoy binge drinking.
A minimal drinker myself, I didn’t take the membership offer seriously. Plus, none of my quirky, socially awkward freshman friends had sought or received fraternity bids. Still, the night I failed to show up at midnight at the center circle of the soccer field to commence “pledging” passed with a realization: “This may become a struggle. Fraternity membership isn’t something I desire, but non-membership is a significant choice.”
*****

There were no immediate consequences to my decision. The spring, non-soccer semester proceeded peacefully. I hung out with my nerdy friends, and the fraternity guys were too busy indoctrinating their new members to pay attention to us. But my friends and I began to worry about where we would live as sophomores. We expected to be randomly assigned to whichever of the ten fraternity houses had empty bedrooms.
Later in the school year, after not establishing eye contact with me for several months, since my non-attendance at the initiation ceremony, the president of Phi Psi approached me in the hallway outside the cafeteria.
“Hey, Stu, how you doing?” said Neil S, friendly as could be.
“Okay,” I said. I thought I should explain. “Sorry about not accepting the bid, but my friends…”
“No need to explain, Stu. No problem at all. Let me offer you a proposition,” said Neil.
“Okay,” I said, wary.
Neil proceeded to explain that his “house” had seven empty “doubles” available for the next school year and “he’d be happy” if my friends and I would move in as a group.
“But why?” I asked.
“It’ll be like your own little fraternity,” he concluded, with a big smile. “And I’d rather have the gee… ah, guys I know rather than some random bunch of independents. You know, I’m sure you won’t be troublemakers.”
“Sounds interesting,” I said. “I’ll let you know.”
When I discussed it with them, my eight or ten friends jumped at the chance to cluster in one location. Several additional independents begged in, and I approached Neil a week later with a full roster of fourteen.
“That’s gungabo-dece,” said Neil.
*****
The following September, our group moved onto the second floor at Phi Psi. Like all the fraternity houses at Dickinson, Phi Psi had three floors. The bottom floor was the common space, including a “social” floor, a large bar and a television room. Neil assigned my group to the second floor, and fraternity members lived on the third floor.
For a week or two, the arrangement worked fine. The bedrooms were no worse than any other dorm. We watched television downstairs, if we chose, without overt hostility from the “brothers.” And the smell of spilled beer that pervaded the building seemed an authentic part of the college experience.
That all changed on October 1 when fraternity rush commenced, the intense period of partying when members indulged their addictions and recruited new members. Each weekend, loosely defined as Thursday through Sunday, a beer-soaked, music-blared bacchanalia took place just beneath our rooms. We weren’t welcome to attend the bashes but participated nonetheless by way of vibrating walls and floors. Our bathroom also was more convenient than the one on the third floor when partygoers needed emergency relief.
For several weeks, my friends groggily congregated in the hallway to lament the situation. We learned from other independents that the pattern was similar throughout the quadrangle. Most aggravating was that fraternity members who wanted to sleep or, God forbid, study, could do so in the relative, non-throbbing quiet of the third floor. Our floor served as their buffer.
“It’s horrible,” we concurred. “But at least it’s not personal or violent.”
That changed quickly during the spring. The new fraternity recruits, called “pledges,” began their indoctrinations. Among the tasks apparently assigned included rampaging through the second floor after midnight hooting, hollering and banging on doors.
Complaints lodged at the office of the Dean of Housing yielded no more than sympathetic nods and the sentiments: “Boys will be boys,” or “It’ll be over in just a few weeks.”
One night, when the door banging took place with metal baseball bats and several drunken pledges regurgitated on the hallway carpet, we finally acted. Ten independents, including myself, marched half a mile to the home of Sam Banks, the college president, coincidentally a proud Phi Psi alumnus. Declaring: “if we’re up, he’s going to be up,” we banged on his door. No one answered.
We did this the next couple of nights, too, with additional independents from other houses, now numbering over twenty. We wondered, with increasing frustration: “How do we get his attention?”
Two members of our group, CLW and MP, decided upon an inspired action I wouldn’t do myself, though I admit to having been sympathetic. When no one answered the door on the fourth night, they unzipped their pants and urinated into the college president’s mail-slot. The next night, they did the same. On the third such night, following their customary loud knocking and leaning on the doorbell, lights finally came on in the house. Bustling down the inside steps, while fastening the tie on his silk bathrobe, was Sam Banks, the President.
“Come in, come in,” he said, peering into the darkness.
Dr. Banks, a large man of about fifty, stood to the side with a look of amazement as our group, which had grown to nearly thirty students, entered. We stepped over the conspicuous, discolored floor in the foyer, and gathered in his living room.
“What can I do for you?” he said, as we stood awkwardly.
Several of my friends explained why we were there and indicated it was our intention to wake him each night we were awakened after midnight. To his credit, Dr. Banks listened with equanimity and nodded that he understood. No one mentioned the mail slot, of course. When the story concluded, he appeared downcast, but thoughtful:
“Thank you for bringing this to my attention,” he said. “The situation is unacceptable. We’ll figure something out. I’ll speak to the Dean of Housing first thing tomorrow.”
Our uncivil disobedience had apparently succeeded spectacularly, since news circulated through the cafeteria the next day that the College had established an “Emergency Task Force on Housing.” As a further indication that something was afoot, Phi Psi brothers glared at us with more hostile silence than usual. Relative quiet also prevailed on our floor from that night forward. When I passed Neil on the walkway to the house later that week, he shook his head.
“Why didn’t you talk to me first?” he said.
“Would it have helped?” I asked.
He paused for a moment.
“Probably not,” he said.
I waited for a moment, thinking he might offer some apology. He resumed walking.
*****

I attended several meetings of the housing task force on behalf of my friends. It consisted of faculty, administrators and student council members who represented the Greek system and independents, respectively. Impressive in their diligence, they produced a report before the end of the school year. They recommended an ingenious solution to the problem, namely: instead of having independents assigned to fraternity housing pay the college for their rooms, like every other student, the fraternities were required to pay for all their rooms and then seek reimbursement from individual residents. Therefore, if a fraternity with an empty bed could not entice an independent to occupy it, the fraternity absorbed the cost. A fraternity known to be hostile to independents would be unable to survive economically.
As a result, sophomore independents in subsequent years were pampered, relatively-speaking. The fraternities offered them third floor rooms, away from the noise, and also refrained from disturbing their sleep. Anecdotally, I heard that fraternity officers apologized if inebriated pledges became too rambunctious or belligerent. The entire balance of the relationship had changed for the better.
*****

Looking back on the experience, I’m pleased I participated in a cause that brought positive change. It benefitted the College, whose reputation has vastly improved, and also benefitted the individuals who spent their sophomore years in civilized circumstances, at least by college standards. I even think it benefitted fraternity members who learned to rein in their baser instincts. Instead of merely rolling over when pissed off, I’m happy I took action along with my friends, though I refrained from being an active, mail-slot pisser.

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