With my son out of school almost two years now and my daughter set to graduate in May (we wrote our final college check in January!), I see the need to balance this pending financial boon with the prospect of psychic loss. Yes, opportunities for nostalgic reflection — on my own university experience — will soon be greatly reduced, or markedly detached from anyone who gives a shit. (I don’t think my wife ever did; she’s from the Midwest where, apparently, people stop talking about where they went to college, outside the football context, pretty soon after graduation.) My kids give one meager level of shit because they’re attending (or did) on my dime. And honestly, I don’t care that they’re mainly just humoring me. It’s enough. Because one cannot talk to one’s spawn about their classes, parties, relationship dramas or whatnot without summoning one’s own such memories.
Which brings me to the college memories one seems to summon (especially New Englanders) more than most in middle age: regrets. Yes, I have a few — but here are the Top 5:
I regret not having walked the measly half-mile across campus that spring of my freshman year to see The Replacements, who played McConaughey Hall, the dining facility we called MoCon, in March of 1983. As you may well know, The Replacements have since developed one of the most rabid, enduring cult followings in the history of rock ‘n roll (see here a pretty good documentary on the subject, available via Amazon Prime). And while none of us knew who they were back in 1983, it wouldn’t have killed us to show up. It wasn’t as if bands played Wes that frequently, much less decent ones (Graham Parker was the best we could do from 1982-86; lowlights included the send-up band Blotto). Later, my housemate Dave Rose in particular grew to love The Replacements with the heat of a thousand suns. I quite like them (especially the album Tim) but to have been there at MoCon that night would have represented some primo post-punk cred to have claimed all these years later… I should funnel two more things into this single music-related regret: 1) the fact that, for the entirety of my college sojourn, I failed to pick up a guitar and learn how to play it. This I would eventually do, at 40, but had I done what any self-respecting collegiate male might have done, I’d be a way better player by now; and 2) MoCon itself was torn down in 2010, but not before having hosted the likes of Joni Mitchell, Steppenwolf, Miles Davis, Gloria Steinem and Martin Luther King Jr. MoCon was the locus of so many memories (and regrets), I could write an entire column on that subject alone, so enormous was the impact of this spaceship-inspired structure on my early college life. But I’ll spare you that, dear reader. For now.
• • •
I regret that my senior housemates and I did not follow through on our bright idea to create a time capsule using the husk of my 1978 Dodge Omni. Rather than consign it to some scrap heap, my parents had ceded this charmless vehicle to me for my final semester in Middletown. It burned a quart of oil for every $10 of gas and the ball joint connecting the clutch cable to the (clutch) pedal kept slipping out of place, which required me to lay upside-down in the driver’s seat — head and hands down by the gas & brake — in order to coax the ball back down the slot into place. The Omni nearly expired several times that spring. And so one night, very late, we hit upon a fabulously practical and sentimental notion: As we were about to move out of our off-campus house into the real world, we were obliged to wrestle with the not-insignificant matter of what to do with all the shit the five of us had accrued there at 8 Warren Street — not just over the course of our senior year but the previous three years, as well. Here was our brilliant plan: drain all fluids from the Omni; dig an appropriately sized hole in the field across the street, beyond the hockey rink and athletic fields where the soccer team practiced; buy a keg (most of our plans back then involved a keg) and throw a killer party whereby everyone brought something to store inside this would-be, once internally combustive time capsule. After filling the Omni with all these mementos, we would set about finishing the keg before rolling the car (or tipping it over) into the hole, whereupon we’d bury it. Eventually, we reckoned, we’d come back to some reunion and excavate — yet another great party (and keg) opportunity would surely ensue. Alas, we never motivated on this front and it’s a real shame because some years later Wesleyan built a palatial athletic complex around the old hockey rink and completely upgraded the old practice fields. In the course of these construction projects, the Omni would surely have been discovered at some point — and we’d have all been famous.
• • •
I regret not tying my academic fate more closely to Richard Slotkin. This guy was probably the single best professor I encountered at Wesleyan, a super lecturer and prolific author – mainly on the subject of “frontier” in the American imagination, literary and otherwise (get a taste of how versatile/interesting that context can be here, with Bill Moyers, from 2013). Slotkin was one of those professors whose courses one took regardless of the subject matter, because he was so damned entertaining (“The Genesis of American Mythology” is one I remember off-hand but I probably took half a dozen) … I showed up in Middletown thinking I’d be a classics major. One semester of college Latin disabused me of that notion. I pivoted to Ancient Greek History and there I remained, perfectly happy, until I returned from my semester abroad. That fall of my senior year an English professor and advisor of mine (Richard Ohmann, a playful Marxist whose lectures on Austen I shall never forget) pointed out that I was only a few credits from fulfilling a double major in History and English. Fine by me. For a time, each department was demanding a thesis (back then, when men were men and the elite liberal arts were the elite liberal arts, you couldn’t graduate without doing one). Eventually they allowed me to earn the double major with but one thesis. It was here I could have shifted course — away from Alcibiades & Nicias to Ishmael & Natty Bumpoo. But I didn’t. Surely Slotkin would not have served as my thesis advisor in any case; there were probably a hundred would-be English majors all vying for his attentions and affections in this capacity. As it was, my history advisor — the avuncular Stephen Dyson, a Roman expert— passed me off to a Greek expert whom I barely knew. Then, over Christmas, she fucked off to London for three months (!). Left largely to my own clueless devices, I floundered and the thesis experience I recall more for this struggle than any sort of academic growth/achievement. It all turned out fine but I should have gone the Slotkin route.
• • •
I regret that Wesleyan soccer from 1982-85 was so competitively lame and inconsequential. Today, the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) plays the best Division III soccer in America. That was true during the ‘80s, as well, but no one knew it — for back then NESCAC didn’t allow member schools to participate in national championships, in any way, shape or form (how’s that for athletic de-emphasis). Save my junior season, when we were pretty good, we would not have qualified for NCAAs anyway but even one tournament would have been an awesome experience. As it was, after playing on extraordinary successful club and high school teams, it proved highly demoralizing to work all season (in such relative anonymity) and go 4-7-2 year after year. Sometimes, in retrospect, it makes me think I might have better concentrated my time and efforts on something else… I have no conception, for example, of any fall semester at Wesleyan without the palimpsest of soccer. We arrived at school a week early for double sessions; thereafter we practiced every day at 3:30 p.m. through the first week in November. In addition to the odd midweek fixture, we had a match every Saturday for 10 straight weeks basically, half of them somewhere else in New England or New York State. D3 soccer may have been small time by some standards but it remained an enormous time suck. When my freshman season finally came to a close, I could not believe all the time I had on my hands! It was quite revelatory how much one could accomplish with every afternoon and weekend free. [I gather from my daughter that Penn, which plays Division I sports, requires varsity athletes to practice twice a day, all season long! If they do that in the Ivy League, I assume it happens across Division I. Last I checked, there were only 24 hours in a day. I honestly don’t know how they do it. Or rather, I can’t escape the conclusion that something far less is asked of these student-athletes, academically, in order to enable it.] I made some great, lasting friendships via the soccer team at Wes, but the regret here is simple: Because it took up such a huge amount of my time, I wish we’d been better, won more games, maybe played a single match of broader consequence.
• • •
I regret that I failed to declare for the NBA draft my junior year. Some time in the spring of my sophomore year, I read in the newspaper the annual list of college basketball players who had officially petitioned the NBA office to forsake their remaining eligibility. This listing appeared each spring. Back then, players who opted for this course of action were said to have “gone hardship”, the idea being they needed to earn NBA money to meet family obligations. It occurred to me there was no reason why I shouldn’t do this, too. I was in college. I had obligations, too. I valued the prospect of NBA money. And I certainly had plenty of eligibility to forsake — having not played any organized basketball since the Wellesley High junior varsity season of 1980-81. Every year, some nobody declared and never did get drafted. That could have been me, listed alphabetically alongside all the other undergraduates who declared year:
Benoit Benjamin, Jr., Creighton
Manute Bol, Fr., University of Bridgeport
Kenny Green, Jr., Wake Forest
Hal Phillips, Jr., Wesleyan (Conn.)
Jerry Reynolds, Jr., LSU
Wayman Tisdale, Jr., University of Oklahoma
Alas, when that letter was due at NBA headquarters, I was abroad at the University of London, busy with other things. In my cups most likely. Still, all it would have taken was a letter. Maybe get it notarized. I regret it never got done.