Friday, March 22, 2019

Elite schools, who needs them?

By Fred Owens

Elite schools, who needs them?  I guess that's a little harsh, but I have encountered the aura of academic prestige and did not care for the experience. Oh, she went to Stanford. People have a way of saying that. So that makes her a big deal? It does look good on a resume, and when you consider the networking opportunities there can be a great advantage to gaining admission to these schools. You might even cheat or bribe your way in. At least some Hollywood actors are accused of that -- paying bribes to get their children admitted. Isn't this pathetic?

I was at a reception at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. This was many years ago. I struck up a conversation with a promising young man who began to question me. He wanted to find out what important thing I had done. I mean, he didn't want to be seen talking with someone who wasn't important. I said I was a landscaper. He said a landscape architect? No, just a landscaper. You know, yard work. Of course I was playing my own game at the time, trying to uphold the dignity of manual labor. But the conversation ended there, he was too important to talk with me.

You find these people at elite schools. Not everyone who goes there is stuck up, to be sure. I  count several friends, who attended Columbia, or Yale or Harvard -- down to earth people and just folks, really smart folks, of course, but still retaining a sense of humility. Okay, I met some really, really smart folks when I lived in Cambridge. I was very often not the smartest person in the room  and I liked that. You just have to sort out the snobs from the real people. It doesn't take long.

But this admission scandal has been dominating the news for the past few weeks. And it brings up the larger question. Why do we have such elite schools?  Why are an enormous amount of resources devoted to a small number of students? What about me? What about my kids?  There has been so much talk of inequality. Maybe we need to start at the colleges and do a bit of levelling. Let's deflate that aura of academic prestige and bring those colleges down to earth.

Global Catastrophe. Another alarming headline, but that is not quite what I mean. Which is that we know so much more about disasters in the far reaches of our world. In the past week there was a plane crash in Ethiopia and more than one hundred people were killed. There was a mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch in New Zealand and fifty Moslems were murdered. Mozambique suffered a terrible hurricane and flood. Thousands may have drowned. I want to know this bad news and I want the details if possible. These are human beings who suffered and died and they are so much like us with homes and families. Modern communication is a blessing.

Part Three of Sage. In Part Two I took up a romance with Susan Bird, the Go-Go Girl from the Brass Rail. The setting was after college graduation in Toronto, wasting away the summer of 1969, avoiding adult choices. In late August, Susan and I hitchhiked to Berkeley, California. We entered the hippie world of West Coast Dreams, and so Part Three begins.......

Her  name was Susan Bird, but she liked it when I called her San, San with coral pink toenail polish. We got to Berkeley, found work, rented a room right off Telegraph Ave and began the month-long process of breaking up. September, 1969.
We hung out at Cody’s Books waiting for tear gas battles with the cops. We went to the Fillmore and saw Santana and Grand Funk Railroad. Santana was the opening act if you can believe that, fronting for Grand Funk Railroad which soon disappeared from all knowledge while Santana still sings for the ages.
San worked part-time at a department store at the perfume counter. I did landscaping work sporadically. San was pretty and very nice to me. We never argued. I just wanted more. I wanted the whole world to explode. I wanted to be totally insane and suffer mental anguish. I wanted Fyodor Dostoyevsky to write my biography. I wanted Mao Tse-Tung to salute me. Comrade! Join the struggle. It was 1969, the hippie vision was breaking up into stupid little hippie clouds.  I resisted but nobody cared. I called long distance to my Mom and Dad back in suburban Chicago. They sent me money, they weren’t worried. I could hear them talking – he’ll sort it out eventually. Their confidence in me was annoying. I was 23 years old.  I wanted to throw away my shoes and live in a teepee. San just gave me a sad look about my dreams.
Why didn’t we have a discussion? Something like this – “I want to go to Mexico in search of the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, also to visit various Shamans in Durango. But I will come back in six weeks, or two months tops… is that okay and will you wait for me?”
“Fred, I don’t know. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Maybe we knew that the conversation wouldn’t work. We got along well but we didn’t love each other all that much. We shared this rented room, sublet from a grad student. I don’t even remember who moved out first. It just happened and we didn’t try to stop it. San was a quality babe. Why was I thinking she  could easily be replaced?  God, that’s an awful way to put it. Replaced? An awful word. I missed her, but I was glad to be in Berkeley on Telegraph Avenue looking for my future.

I had so many choices. The Hog Farm and Wavy Gravy. The Red Mountain Tribe and their radical newspaper.  The Rainbow Nation and their Native American pseudo-rituals. Love Israel, which is what they called themselves, a little too woo-woo for me. Jesus freaks, God help us. The Christ family – apocalyptic and the world would burst into flames. Hare Krishna and dance til you drop. The Roach Family, going to Texas on a blue bus to gather and eat peyote cactus. The STP Family, an evil spawn on the Avenue. They preyed on innocent suburban wanderers with rape and harsh drugs and brutality – they were scary dudes……. Baba Ram Dass, Timothy Leary and the Grateful Dead scattering blessings on us all.
I sat on the sidewalk, watching and waiting. Who comes ambling down the street? Ron Firman, in striped bellbottoms and a silver chain around his waist, smiling at everybody, humming softly as if he had lived there all his life, when in fact I knew him from Toronto.
Can I stop here for a minute and explain that when you’re hanging out on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California, you don’t expect to run into someone you knew from Super House back in Toronto? Well, it would not matter to anyone else but me, but there was Ron ambling and there was I in a squat on the sidewalk with a home-rolled cigarette.
Did he see me first, or did I see him first? Ron was from Thunder Bay, a small town in northern Ontario. He was a sometime companion to Allanah Furlong, who was a room-mate to Cyndi Quick who had been a girl friend to Alan Archibald who was  the founder of Super House.
So I knew Ron well enough. His voice was like the sound of a treasured heirloom clarinet, a sweet sound. “I don’t have much to say, but I say it well, “ being his attitude.
He became an important figure in this story and in my life because he introduced me to Sage. Ron lived with Sage and some other hippies in a group home in the Piedmont enclave of Oakland.
“Come and join us for a meal. You can crash on the couch if you want to. We have lots of room.”
That seemed like a good idea. Piedmont was a spiffy uptown neighborhood so it was surprising to see  this hippie home with an I Ching flag in yellow and red hanging over the front door, but it was clean and well-kept. Patrick the builder lived in the garage. Neil Dodgson was formerly a research chemist in graduate school but he dropped out to study astrology. Neil had one of the upstairs bedrooms. Rosemarie Barbeau, who would have become my sister in law if she had ever married my brother, had another room upstairs. John Haroldson was from Iowa, recently returned from two years in the Peace Corps in Afghanistan. John had his room.
Sage had the fourth bedroom, mattress on the floor, batik curtains with beads, books and clothes strewn here and there. She was just too cheerful to be tidy.
I slept on the couch in the living room. I forgot the kids. Eric and Sean, 7 and 2, lived in a heap of toys and floor mattresses in a small room off the dining room down stairs. They were Sage’s kids. She had two kids.  I’m repeating that because I didn’t know anyone who had kids. Actual children that you had to feed and clothe and wash and soothe and teach. Every day you had to do that if you had kids. This was incredible. Five years of college and I never dangled a baby, never held one, never saw one, had only the most theoretical idea that I might have some of my own some day.
No one in the Piedmont house thought about children, except they were there. We took care of them well enough, just never thought about it. Kids just happened, they just showed up.
But I had not yet met Sage. I did not know her bedroom until a  few days later. First I met the gang downstairs and sat for the communal supper of fish, brown rice and steamed vegetables.   It was a pleasant meal. The kids were running around. Someone was designated to watch them, but I could not tell who the watcher was.
Sage was due anytime, coming back from her classes at Berkeley where she studied anthropology.
Then she came home and gave her smile and sat down to eat. Look, I’m not going to make this first encounter with Sage to be an earthshaking dramatic event with flashing love bolts. We met and thus it began.
Let’s just leave the gang  -- John, Patrick and Neal, Rosemarie and Sage, and those two kids, Eric and Sean – let’s just leave them to enjoy their dinner. They welcomed me, showed me the couch and I made myself comfortable, for that evening……
Part Three ends here. I don’t know whether to go on or just give up. Maybe I should look for a publisher, show him or her the first three parts and see if they want to make a deal.  Like I finish writing the manuscript and they agree to give me an advance. That would give me a lot more respect, like I am not just wasting my time. Such a deal! How could I get such a deal? I don’t know any publishers.  My networking skills are nonexistent. It is hopeless.
Except it is not hopeless. I live in Santa Barbara with Laurie, near the beach. How lucky is that!



Fred Owens
cell: 360-739-0214

My gardening blog is  Fred Owens
My writing blog is Frog Hospital

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