I’m nobody! Who are you? [Emily Dickinson]
I was nobody my Freshman year at KU, just a kid. I was a medium-fish in a huge pond. I was a smart, zany kid from small-town Kansas. That was the way I wanted it: anonymous, no expectations, lots of options. I was exactly where I wanted to be/ On the Road to Nowhere by the Talking Heads.
I lived in Pearson Scholarship Hall at KU. This was a communal living arrangement, a low-cost alternative to a fraternity or dorm for students who were more academically fit for college than economically or socially fit. At the time, there were four women’s and four men’s halls.
The people of the hall did most of the work; like cooking the meals, cleaning the bathrooms, and washing the dishes, pots, and pans. This kept the costs low and it meant you learned a lot about others by the way they did their jobs. The hall was full of eccentric characters, and it was a blast to live there. These four years were so good/ the best.
Most of the men were from small-town Kansas, but there was also a clique of Johnson County upper classmen. I admired them, and I did not share the festering resentment that I could feel from some of my small-town peers. The Johnson County folks had a condescension, an easy-acquaintance with privilege, and the careless avoidance of anything uncomfortable. And I understood the resentment of those who were not privileged, those who had not grown up with house-keepers, those who already knew how to mop the floor. And now that I have come to live in Johnson County, I guard against that mindset, but we do have house-keepers.
In the first week, we voted on the rules for the hall. It was like a Constitutional Convention. For the most part, the rules were adopted unquestioned from the past year. But this question was posed, “Are female guests allowed to visit twenty-four hours per day?” And there was unanimous acclamation. The raucous atmosphere of college men deciding on the loose rules that they would live by was unnerving at first, but quickly embraced by me and the other Freshmen.
With my free time, I played Spades and Ultimate. I was excellent at Spades, though I never was much good at Hearts, and I never had the patience for Bridge. I was great at Ultimate, sometimes called Frisbee-football. I once said that it was a perfect game for me because I had no understanding for the parabolic motion of balls. Reading a disc, however, (figuring out the earliest possible moment you can catch the Frisbee as it comes slicing through the air) came naturally. You had to be fast, but (with no tackling) you didn’t need to be big.
During the summer after my Freshman year, I went to Cheyenne, where my cousin Eric connected me with a job working in a warehouse. He is a softball enthusiast, and they don’t play Ultimate; so I played softball.
I was weak and inexperienced as an outfielder, and I started in right field. I caught very few fly balls. Then, after several days of practice shagging balls with Eric, I got promoted to left field. One of the highlights of my athletic career (burned in my muscle-memory) was running down a line drive. It was hit solid and low, and I reflexively shot off for it. I read it perfectly. Running at full tilt, I put my left hand out. At the final moment, I swear I was a line from my right foot that had just pushed off the ground to my left hand that snagged the ball. The force of the ball in my mitt nearly tore it off, but everything held. The batter was out.
Eric, who originally introduced me to Rush, now expanded my repertoire with music and movies that summer. I remember listening for the first time to Moody Blues, Peter Gabriel, and lots of Talking Heads. I made a bunch of tapes from the CDs in his collection, and I would play them on the twenty-minute drive to and from work. I watched Blade Runner for the first time and the gaps in Monty Python were filled in.
He also made me familiar with the phrase, “That bastard!” I began using it too easily. Over the summer, I saved enough money to buy a Macintosh, which I named Schnoopy.
In college, by the beginning of Sophomore year, I was thrift-store-chic, I was alternative-eccentric-music-savvy. I knew what I liked, I was sure of myself. By Thanksgiving, I fell in love with my future wife, Melanie. I was obsessed with her. I wandered and wondered my way through Philosophy, Business, Mathematics, and English, finally earning a B.S. and a B.A. in the latter two. It took me five years.
But… One of my low points was as a waiter at Pearson. Waiters set the tables family-style, clear the tables, and clean the dining hall. We were cleaning up after dinner, and one of the waiters had not shown up on time. At least, I thought he had not shown up. He was a Native American who had transferred from Haskell Indian Nations University. And I was remarking… “That bastard.” When someone pointed him out, “Who? Henry? He’s here.” And yes, there he was, glowering at me, on the opposite side of the trashcan, scraping food off the serving dishes while I did the same. We were mirror images. Only I didn’t see him. I was blind, busy with resentment and complaining.
I felt horrible. I maybe said, oh, and muttered an I’m sorry. But I couldn’t really fix it. The privilege had slipped out. I was part of the in-crowd, and he was out.
Henry was gone after that semester.
I’m afraid I was a racist. That’s hard to change.
In my Junior year, I was the Social Chair for the hall. This was the year Pearson was in exile, living in a dorm, while the hall was getting remodeled, improved, and made handicap-accessible. Being Social Chair for geeks was fun.
I became Proctor in my first Senior year, and my self-assurance melted away. My joie de vivre took a mortal blow, though it would still be a couple of decades before it was dead. The Proctor is the man “in charge” of the Hall; he assigns the shifts and enforces Housing Policies. I thought that it would be a resume builder. I thought that it would be the best job ever; because I loved Pearson, and I loved the people who lived there, and I thought I could make it even better. But I learned some lessons about myself.
I learned that I did not want to be in middle-management, stuck between the people (my constituents, colleagues, friends) and the Man (KU Housing, the system). I had to enforce the dry campus rules. In the past, some proctors established a beer-tax. The concept was you paid in beer to have beer; but I didn’t go for that. I just turned a blind eye when I could. Still, I caught one of the residents during checkout with an open bottle of liquor. I had to bust two parties because they got so loud that they were spilling into the neighborhood. I had to write people up. And that sucked. And I was a hard-ass about other things. I woke one guy up at 8:00 on a Saturday morning, because he had not properly cleaned the kitchen the night before. He got up and did it, yes; but he was not happy about it.
One Saturday night, as I was drifting off to sleep, as the rest of the hall was nearly empty, there was a roar in the hall that startled me (terrorized me). It sounded like a plane taking off or a wicked tornado siren wailing.
I leapt out of bed, took a deep breath, and opened the door. There/ Staring at me/ Was a vacuum cleaner.
My room was at the end of the hall, and the vacuum was plugged into the outlet way down the hall, near the stairwell. Nice. Well-thought-out-plan. The perpetrator was well-away by the time I reached the door.
I whipped the cord out of the outlet, silencing the vacuum, and wheeled it into my room. Problem solved.
Message received. Resentment brewing.
Some would call it brain-washing, but I say KU opened my mind about homosexuality.
I met a student who was discreetly gay. He was a handsome, athletic man; and he could have dated any of the women for miles around, but he didn’t. He had a boyfriend to whom he was faithful for the two years that I knew him. He was worried about being found out by someone who would just hate him for being gay, who would maybe try to beat him up. He was deeply afraid. This did not square with the “hedonistic, gay lifestyle-choice” with-which I had grown up, what I half-thought, what I believed without knowing. The way I came to know a real-life homosexual did not square with my expectations, my preconceived notions, my stereotypes.
Why be gay if you were so desirable? Why endure the slings and arrows of other people’s judgement, hatred, disgust, and possible violence? Why be faithful if you were just in it for the sex?
I grew to respect this man for his honesty, sense of humor, and integrity. I sympathized with his worry about the perceptions of others. None of the reasons I had been told people were gay would compute. The only thing that made sense was he was born that way. It was not a choice; it was chance, determined.
I was introduced to this question, “When did I decide to be hetro?” And I realized I never did; I just always was. More hetro than homo; that’s me.
I thought I would always live in the hall, even if it took me five years to get through college. But early in my Proctor year, my fourth year, I knew I could not come back.
Until that First Senior summer, I still thought I could be socially-liberal and fiscally conservative. Then, I read Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead, and I thought, “That’ll never work!” As a Sophomore, even at KU, the heart of liberal Kansas, I was an NRA apologist, and I even gave a speech in Communications about stopping gun control legislation, back in 1990. My argument was that the guns used to commit crime were obtained illegally for the most part; so what good is it to outlaw something that is already against the law? Enforce the laws you already have.
Now I see that the law can be leveraged and exploited. I see that some laws are impossible to enforce. I see that a handgun in a bedside table might be used in a fit of rage, or it might be shown to a friend or sibling when no one else is around, or it might be used in “self-defense” when a teenage child comes home unexpectedly from a late-night party. It is better to not even have the tools of the trade in circulation.
In my fifth year, I decided to move into an apartment with a convenient friend from the hall. That’s when I transitioned to married life. My roommate and I (both with our own girlfriends) fought over what food to buy; it was good-natured and fun. I imagined people might mistake us for a gay couple. That summer I got married, and Melanie and I went to grad school. She got a Masters of Civil Engineering, and I got a Masters of Mathematics at the University of Illinois.