Over Sharples dinner: an ode to specs

— When confronted by someone new at Swat, do you think you take the “flight” or the “fight” response?

“I don’t know. It depends.”

— Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about the awkwardness of eye contact in Sharples a lot lately. Like, how do you as a woman deal with aggressive eye contact?

“I don’t know. What do you mean?”

— Like what if a guy is just like totally aggressively looking you in the eyes?

“Oh. Haha. Well. If he’s good-looking I guess it’s a positive, but I mean, I guess, I don’t really know what you mean.”

— It’s just hard to meet people or talk to people if you don’t know each other, or aren’t introduced, I guess. I’m not really saying anything.

“I guess. Or unless you pass through the same circles. But if there’s like, for example, someone I’m trying to get to know, I’ll find a way. Are you asking because you want to talk to someone?

— I don’t know what I’m trying to say. Sharples is just a weird place, the more I think about it. I have three potential columns for the Phoenix I’m writing.

“Three?”

— Yeah. It’s supposed to be ostensibly written for prospective students. One is a piece on a bunch of columns that Jonathan Franzen wrote his senior year.

“Really!? Like, what did he write about!?”

— Okay, so in one of them there’s this, like, horror that Franzen supposedly runs into in the tunnel at the train station. He’s basically everything Swatties fear: he’s a murderer, junkie, or something, “a cutthroat and a rapist, a brute, a purse-snatcher: I deface the billboards around the station. I manage all the graffiti around here, and tear pages out of the phone books. But primarily I am here to spook effete, unescorted students going to or from the College.” And Franzen asks him about the mirrors in the bathrooms in McCabe. “My widow,” the junkie replies, “was an architect and it was she that had those mirrors installed. They had to be full-length mirrors. Her plan was this; students would spend entire days wrapped up in themselves and their studies at those oppressive little carrels. They would go to the bathroom and there be compelled to admire themselves from head to toe. Other students would surprise them at it and embarrass them.” It’s really funny because the junkie gives up: “These clever Swarthmore students. There’s no disconcerting them. They comb their hair, or blow their noses, or dry their hands in front of the mirrors. Some of them even brazen it out, continuing to dote when they’ve been caught at it.” It perfectly captures the pride of Swatties in conspicuous studying.

“That’s hilarious.”

— Yeah, and Franzen says near the end that these myths, this horror-man, are like “the kind of things that students don’t anticipate before they reach college, aren’t aware of (except in dreams) while they are there, and don’t remember after they have left. They are the things that give rise to the oft-repeated yet seldom-grasped axiom ‘Swarthmore is not a place’ — God forbid — ‘it’s a state of mind.’

— In another column, Franzen talks about Christmas dinner with his father. His dad brags about the American breakfast, compared to those of starving “Europeans.” And Franzen finds that problematic and goes on to make fun of people who talk about the Sharples breakfasts. “People confuse bacon and Liberal Arts, as though they have something to do with one another,” or something.

— Oh, and then in another column, Franzen’s talking about Kurt Vonnegut and Vonnegut’s son, “Mark, who wrote one the most fatuous books I’ve ever read.” He’s writing about the Vonneguts, “now only because Mark’s book deals with the first few years of his life after Swarthmore, and because the thunderstorm last Friday night called to mind Kurt’s ‘Slaughterhouse Five.’” Franzen’s writing literally 34 years ago today: “Trees are in bloom. So it goes. It’s raining again. So it goes.”

— “For four years,” Franzen writes, “Swarthmore’s intense academic focus has blinded us to the realities of the big world. We all need some time to really find ourselves, to find direction and place in society. Or so the story goes. I rather suspect though, that we have actually had plenty of time to find ourselves. The problem is that we haven’t cared to look.” He asks whether there’s value in wasting time, how that relates to the American Dream, how there was once “hope for counter-culture,” but not today.

“What was your other column?”

— I don’t know. I don’t understand why people like reading what I write. I always want to ask them, Why? But I consistently choose the flight response over the fight, polite thank-yous over going deeper, flattery over truth. My other column was about this freshman in her freshman fall who decided during her freshman fall that she was transferring in the spring back home.

“Why?”

— Well, the way she explained it to me, was that as a Native American, she was having a really hard time finding anyone with whom she could relate, or any communities in which she felt at home in Swarthmore.

“Why? Did she live on a reservation?”

— I mean, I don’t know. She was from this Great Plains state. I’m not going to tell you which. But it blew my mind.

“Why did that blow your mind?”

— I mean, the fact that after five minutes at a Christmas sweater party that eventually became a put-as-much-whiskey-in-eggnog-as-possible party, this girl felt comfortable enough to talk about her whole Swat experience, and that she was freaking transferring after one semester.

“Swat is kind of cliquey.”

—I think one of the things that makes you a Swattie is that there’s this natural feeling precisely of not belonging. I mean, I’m not going to pretend like I can relate with where she was coming from. I’m not Native American. But Swatties are like Russians: they bond by complaining and playing misery poker. It’s weird. I really enjoyed listening to her story, getting to know what this Swat culture in which there’s this deep-seated sentiment of not belonging, in which I guess I’m totally complicit, looked like to her.

“What was your last column?”

—I rewrote Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground”: “I am a sick college … I am a beastly college. I am an unattractive college. I believe my culture is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my culture, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a wellness survey for it, and never have, though I have a respect for surveys and figures. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect statistics, anyways (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a study out of spite. That you probably won’t understand. I understand, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘fill in’ the studies by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult the data it is from spite. My culture is bad, well — let it get worse!”

“Geez!”

— Yeah, it was ridiculously overdone. “I realized that this man was an imposter,” was what Franzen wrote at the end of one of his columns: “I snatched his wallet and ran.”

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