• Goodbye in Greek

    • Posted on Jan 27, 2013


    I remember clearly the night I decided to drop out of my social fraternity.

    I had been "active" for one semester. I had gone to most of the meetings, parties, pinnings, rehearsals, dinners, and so on, and I was beginning to wonder — just slightly — if there was anything in my world besides Alphas and Omegas.

    Anyway, it was a nice fall night, and I was busy trying to study some music for my classes (I was a music major at the time), when I had to quit for a "pinning."

    A "pinning" was not just a wrestling term in 1962; in the fraternities, it was a ceremony where the fraternity honored one of its Actives who had given his frat pin to his sweetie. This signaled hands off to campus droolies who might have been after the sweety. .

    Anyway, the proud Active and his pre-fiancee dressed up and stood on the stairs of her dorm while all the members (dressed up too, of course) gathered in formation and sang bad music like "Sweetheart of Sigma Chi" and "Halls of Ivy," and maybe (if they were lucky) "Tell Me Why." The brick walls echoed with fraternal harmonies, at least when we sang on key.

    Then we would file by the couple and shake hands with him and smooch her and that meant they were officially "pinned." It was romantic but time-consuming.

    These pinnings, counting rehearsals, ceremony, and handshake-smooch always took over an hour, and we had an average of one a week all fall. And you had to be there, or be fined.

    That particular night I was restless, and so were some of my brothers. We began giggling and chortling on the way to the dorms, making loud cracks and animal noises, just to let off steam, you know. It got a little out of hand, and the song leader went red and yelled, "C'mon you guys, act like Chi's!" ("Chi" was part of our Greek name.)

    That got me. "Act like a Chi," I thought. "What the hell does that mean?" Immediately I knew what it meant: act like a good boy, don't make trouble, don't raise any questions. Just play your Mortimer Snerd dummy role and fit in.

    With somewhat of a jolt, I realized that I wasn't really a "Chi" at all; that I never had been. I didn't fit in because most of the functions bored me to tears, the pledge activities were silly if not barbaric, the conversations we had and even the friendships we formed were wafer-thin. It was time to quit.

    So I got out, first by going inactive, then by completely disaffiliating.

    And my life got better immediately. I was somewhat wealthier for not having to pay dues and fines. I grew smarter because my circle of friends began to include non-Greek questioners.

    And I got back to some more fundamental college activities like thinking, reading, and writing.

    This is not to say I didn't have fun or became a bookish hermit. Far from it; I remained active in a professional fraternity. This was a group whose main purpose was to help its members grow competent in a specific professional field. This was an extremely helpful organization whose social functions offered plenty for me.

    That was entirely different from the social fraternity, whose major purpose was self-perpetuation at whatever cost (it seemed) to individual members.

    From what I have saw, fraternities and sororities still remain expensive makers of dummies: the Mortimer Snerds and Charlie McCarthys of America. Lovable, laughable, harmless — and dumb.

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  • On Hating High School

    • Posted on Nov 08, 2012

    Note:  I wrote this just before my 30th high school reunion, which I didn't attend.  
    By the time of my 40th and 50th, I had changed my mind, and attended both, more or less happily.  Still, I stand by the points here.  Those were awful years, 1958-1961) but not because of classmates, most of whom I liked personally.   I wanted to clarify that, since this may have seemed a bit harsh.  I do know plenty of others also had a very hard time during high school for the reasons I explored.  
    --Nov. 8, 2012.  


    Make no mistake, I have nothing against people who enjoyed high school. People who breezed through, who never brooded over nasty personal comments, who graduated without becoming mildly paranoid, I admire and envy.

    I'm certainly not one of them. From the first day of 10th grade to the last day of my senior year at Cedar Falls High, I was miserable. Not upset, or dysfunctional, or hostile. Just miserable.

    What was the problem?

    Well, there was personal incompetence. Nothing made sense, nothing worked right, nothing came out like it should.

    When I wanted to appear cool, I was a klutz. When I wanted to burst forth with an elegant phrase, I blurted childish cliches. When I wanted to make friends, I made foolish gestures that turned people off. And when I wanted a date, I sweated blood, wishing to GOD I had been born without bodily urges.

    Yet if personal incompetence had been my only problem, I would have gotten along fine. I could see flashes of competence at times, mostly when I got over being so self-conscious.

    There was also a larger problem: heavy pressures to conform. Adherence to some vague standard of behavior prevailed, enforced daily by both open and veiled taunts. Rather than become outcasts, most of us gave in and shamelessly conformed.                  

    The result was a building full of various degrees of phoniness. We hid our individuality under cloaks of false friendliness, of cool talk and gestures, of costumes that we came to wear less by choice than by peer pressure.                               

    We had no minds of our own. Only if we trusted a close friend or two could we talk freely about our deepest selves. Even then, occasional gut-rending betrayals occurred in locker rooms and hallways.                             

    Brutal comments enforced the standards. During the late fifties, adolescents regularly slashed classmates with verbal knives. Physical, emotional, and social defects were favorite targets for stabbing. 

    I weighed about 140 pounds when I graduated, and stood just under six feet. Grotesquely skinny, in other words. No matter how many hamburgers and malts I wolfed down, I stayed stick-like.

    So for four years I was reminded of my toothpick arms and legs by kind classmates. "Hey fizzy," they'd call me, for "physical wreck." That passed for wit in high school.                       

    I took small comfort in the fact that others were far worse off. One guy was short, squat, and socially inept.  He quickly became the class outcast, the butt of everyone's jokes. How he survived three years of slings and arrows from outrageous classmates remains a mystery.

    Worse, if that's possible, we all felt conflicting pressures and demands: grow up or stay a kid. Hang out with friends vs. sit home with parents and siblings. Explore sex or remain celibate. Drink beer or Pepsi. Socialize or work. Smoke and be cool, or turn them down and be a nerd. Take school seriously or blow it off and enjoy life. 

    Strangely enough, I didn't know all these forces made me so miserable while in high school.  But after thirty years, a pattern of highs and lows has emerged. And even the worst years since high school turned out better than anything from 10th to 12th grade.  Those three years now seem the swamp and muck, the very pits of my life.

    College, teaching, marriage, two children, my mother's death, divorce and remarriage, graduate school, work of various kinds, more teaching, multiple professional challenges came along after high school. These events, plus gaining about forty pounds, formed my current attitudes far more than high school.      

    And that's why I paused when high school classmates asked me to help with the Cedar Falls High thirtieth reunion next weekend. I wanted to like the idea. I realized that I should go. I might even force a few laughs. But as I imagined the evening, I could only muster indifference mixed with light rushes of misery.  I told them no thanks.  

    Still, I wish my class of '61 CF High classmates well this weekend. As I say, I admire anyone who enjoyed high school.                        

    As for me, high school passed on thirty years ago, and I have no desire to resurrect it. 

    Rest in peace, you miserable three years.

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