As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.
The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it. Never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…
More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only class I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).
Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor, the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.
But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building — a few steps from the manhole where we often plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps. If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.
Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.
I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in aluminum foil.
The Price is Right fell right into this determinedly low-brow TV consumption, representing, as it did, all that was bourgeois and mass cultural — a great pleasure following high-blown, Nat Greene-led discussions of Marx, Captain Swing and Bismarck’s deft wrangling of German principalities. While Dennis’ note-taking habits at the knee of Professor Green were notoriously suspect, Bob Barker proved another matter entirely. While watching the show, Dennis kept copious notes on the price of every consumer item so that he might later blurt out a winning price before any of the three official contestants. When some dishwasher was revealed from behind the curtain, Dennis would browse his cheat sheet while everyone else in the studio cooed with consumerist abandon (take that, Karl!).
“Whirlpool, eh? That’s upmarket,” Dennis would muse strategically. “I’m going with $538.”
And invariably, it was so — or near enough that Dennis would have earned, in our demented fantasy world, the right to bound up on stage to mug with Barker at close quarters.
I heard an interesting interview a few years ago with writer/director Noah Baumbach and his partner Greta Gerwig, star of his movie, Frances Ha. Gerwig, then 28, talked about how several characters she’s played on screen ]stumble through their mid-20s in an unhinged emotional state — not necessarily because of new adult demands being foisted upon them, but rather because the surrogate families all 20somethings create for themselves at college (and just afterward) invariably fall away, sometimes bit by bit, but always in ways that unmoor. I remember this dynamic: We gathered these people upon leaving our actual families, and Gerwig explained that she was completely taken aback when close college and post-collegiate friends moved away, took jobs that contravened all she had assumed they stood for, or married someone whose presence effectively severed or weakened these bonds — bonds that young, college-educated folk believe are strong and meaningful enough to last forever.
I find Gerwig’s observation to be spot on. I remain close to several friends from college and that immediate-post collegiate period, including Dennis, but many more did fall away over time for reasons that were surely legitimate but felt to me, at the time, like a sort of casual betrayal. I mean, these were people I lived with, for years — they contributed to the shaping of me and presumably I reciprocated in some way. It makes one value all the more those who’ve not fallen away, but it also makes one sad and wistful that all we have to show for these folks, now lost, are weirdly disconnected memories, the odd anecdote, and persistent wonder as to whom they turned out to be.
I stay in pretty good touch with Dennis but there are probably a dozen others I haven’t spoken to for many years now. I wonder how they’re doing, beyond the superficial info I might gather on Facebook (were they, or I, to indulge in such a thing). If we tripped over each other somewhere, would we trade grand truths? Would we trade Nat Greene recollections or their equivalents before falling into the banter we perfected and found so very absorbing all those years ago?
I wonder… Until then:
Johnny, tell him what he’s won…
A NEW CAR!