When the fall quarter began in 1972, I vowed to make no new friends at school. I was a third-year graduate student in literature at U.C. Irvine. I was finishing coursework and would take qualifying exams in the spring. "No new ones," I promised my wife Rebekah that first day.
"Probably wise," she replied.
Graduate schools, even the best of them, are a boot camp of the mind. Daily you watch students handle stress, setbacks, and, often more revealing, success. All take place in an atmosphere of evaluation, of rankings real and imagined. On this mental proving ground, strong bonds can form.
At Irvine, Rebekah and I made some close friends in our first two years. Then, often without warning, they'd leave.
Susan Cohen, as brilliant as she was down-to-earth, came to the program from N.Y.U. Her "main squeeze," Larry, was an acquired taste, though. Studying to be a court reporter, he'd practice by phoning people. "Just tawk," he'd tell us, then would record whatever we said.
"Larry, it's two a.m.!"
"('Larry, it's...') Got it. Keep going!"
They lived in Laguna Beach, where Larry, who took a dour view of things, became infamous for being the only person the Laguna Greeter wouldn't greet.
Rebekah and I spent Friday evenings with Susan and Larry, Baron and Janet Wormser, and Scott Baker. Other than the occasional "another week down," conversation rarely centered on school. Instead we compared notes about the epic monster movie we watched daily: Southern California. Two from Baltimore (Baron and Janet), a Chicagoan (Scott), and a couple from the redwoods of U.C. Santa Cruz shared astonished observations.
Halfway through the winter quarter, Susan walked out of a critical theory seminar, stood in the hallway, and roared like a wounded lion. She'd just heard Professor Murray Krieger recount the history of imitation theories, from Plato to Benedetto Croce, in ten minutes flat. Krieger's virtuosity blew her away. She dropped out of school. Her sudden departure felt like a death in the family.
So did Baron's. Except for writing poems instead of doing homework, and condensing each class's notes into a single word, you'd have sworn that, of all of us, he'd get the Ph.D. At the end of spring quarter, however, Baron spray-painted his baby blue seersucker suit day-glo orange, put a toothpick in his mouth, walked into the lit office, and said good-bye. He and Janet moved to Maine, where he became its poet laureate in 2000.
Scott studied our friends' exits like sacred texts. If he ever left, he swore, it'd have to be unforgettable.
I can't recall the exact age -- 25? 30? But if Scott could reach it, he'd inherit a trust fund and would be set for life. Problem was: the odds were against him. He lived as if he'd missed the Sixties and was desperate to catch up.
One Scott story: he wants to see Santa Cruz, via the coast route. We go there on Christmas break in his ancient van. Since he's experimenting with colored pills from a cellophane bag, I'm driving. Halfway between San Simeon and Big Sur, it starts raining buckets. And the driver's side windshield-wiper is stuck!
"Oops," says Scott between gulps. "Forgot about that."
For the next 25 hairpin, vertiginous, rain-slammed miles, Scott described each upcoming turn: "little right. No! Hard right. MORE!!" -- this as part of an ongoing adoration of the windshield's "far out" drip patterns.
Scott left the program in the spring of '71. He walked into the lit office, said good-bye to the secretaries and the department chairman, then walked out. He was stark naked.
Scott has since become an award-winning science-fiction writer. He lives in Paris and, last I heard, now writes novels in French. Dire prognostications to the contrary, he'll probably outlive the planet.
No new friends, I promised Rebekah. Of course I'd made a similar vow the first day of my final year at U.C. Santa Cruz: no romantic complications this time; gonna hit those books, write that senior thesis — then there she was.
From the entering class of literature students, in the fall of 1972, I made lifelong friends. To commemorate two of them, and suggest the tribulations of graduate life -- including a sad divorce — I dedicated my dissertation "To Mike Clark and James 'the Hawk' Culhane, who helped me get sane, when I was crazy, and crazy, when I got a little too sane."