Monday, April 03, 2006

What is hip (part 4); or, North toward home.

In order to have any hope of ever finishing this series of portraits of significant mentors (mostly but not exclusively intellectual) in my life, I'm going to do some joint entries of folks who I dealt with at concurrent time periods. These by necessity somewhat shorter biopics should not be taken as any relative decision about the various merits of said mentors, but rather as me bowing to the realities of job searching, writing, homeowning and the concomitant lawn maintaining in a MS spring/summer vis-à-vis my blogging activities. I want to thank the late Willie Morris for the loan of my subtitle. I had the privilege to drink some bourbon with him once at a party at the MUW presidential mansion [Thanks for the invite, Ann!]. We retired to the library and gabbed about Southern Football in the 1970s and the greatness of Herschel Walker while he was at UGA, all after he had signed my long-cherished first edition of The Courting of Marcus Dupree. But once again it's North Toward Home. Whatever would I have done had I lived in Pforzheimer House as NoHo is now known.

For 3 of my 4 years at Harvard, I lived at the Radcliffe Quadrangle as a Quadling in North House, where I met an incomparable series of house tutors and staff. I'm going to talk about only 5 of them (that's including 2 couples as a single unit) in some detail: Jan and Liz Ziolkowski, Stephen Mitchell, Neal Johnson, John and Rosalee DiUlio, and Colin Bain. Then I'll briefly remember the rest of a great group of folks that made North House truly a home.

Neal Johnson
Neal Johnson was from the west; he transferred into Harvard College from Portland's Lewis & Clark and graduated with a AB in Government magna cum laude in 1980. In 1982-3, when I matriculated up from the yard, he was 2L and lived across the hall in Moors 402. As I had long professed an interest in THE LAW, at least since seeing Inherit The Wind, I was excited to have such close access to the pre-Law tutor. I soon found Neal was just an interesting cat with his dual passions for obscure Sarah Vaughan on vinyl and a hidden desire to be an Ant person. As the year progressed we became devotees of this newish late night ABC news show with Ted Koppel, because there was a prison takeover/riot in the news in 1982-3 with interesting links to Attica. Neal was a fount of good advice and fellowship.

Inevitably, I moved out of Moors as a junior. Neal graduated with his JD that year. I saw him a few times and stayed with him once on the Upper East Side, There was a memorably bad show by Astrud Gilberto in full-on sex kitten mode complete with ears and a tiger tale at S.O.B.'s. Eventually, he took a Corporate Law job in Riyadh and in essence vanished from the face of the earth

Jan and Liz Ziolkowski
Jan and Liz Ziolkowski met as undergrads at Princeton. Jan graduated in 1977 with a degree in Medieval studies. He won a prestigious Marshall Scholarship and earned a PhD in Medieval Latin from that other Cambridge. Liz earned her degree in Chemistry a year later and then joined Jan abroad. I was always amused by their story about seeing Animal House in England and being the only people to laugh during the screening. 2 countries divided by an ocean, a common language, and a bit more I guess. Jan spent one post-graduate year at the American Academy in Rome before arriving at Harvard in 1981, where he has been employed ever since (one of those rare professors who rose through the ranks and achieved tenure and full status without having to go away for a period). They were joined in their duties as head Tutors for Moors hall by the adorable Saskia and her younger sister Ada. I really don't want to think about how grown up they are now! But rumor has it Saskia is in grad school in Italian at Columbia! and Ada is an administrative assistant at a major MIT lab . . .

Jan's most famous course at Harvard was probably his Core offering, Literature and Arts A-31: Beast Literature, once famously the target of William C. Bennet's monomaniacal egotistical wrath in a NY Times op-piece entitled "Aristotle, Tolstoy, Donald Duck, Beast Literature". Hey moral arbiter, try getting a handle on your gambling addiction first, why don't you. Predictably instead, I took Comp Lit 211: The Medieval Lyric, a course primarily for Graduates. We read across the globe including into the Moorish tundra for some Arabic fare, through the Bible in search of Mary and love, and all around France with the troubadours and trouvères in both langue d'oc and langue d'oïl. I ended up writing a paper that looked toward a useful structural definition of medieval satire. Someday I might actually do something with a revised edition of that paper as its still pretty virgin territory according to a 2005 MLA Bibliography scan. I learned a lot from Jan: what it meant to be a true scholar and how far I was from it at the time and still am. I also learned what it meant to love scholarship for its own sake. Plus I learned the necessity of casting the widest possible net to truly understand a subject, thus, par example, our foray into Arabic literature. First know everything, then and only then start composing!

Stephen Mitchell
Stephen Mitchell was reared in the Northern California shadow of Mt. Shasta. He is a not-so-Dirty Golden Bear (a little inside axe humor there) with degrees in Anthropology and Scandinavian. He took his PhD in Scandinavian at the University of Minnesota. Like Jan he has spent his entire academic career at Harvard from assistant to tenured full professor; quite a double feat for former NoHo tutors I'd say! At Harvard, he replaced Ted Andersson who had fled west and whom I would meet during graduate school. A true medievalist, Stephen showed his disdain for SCA or as he dubbed them "the people who wear parts of old refirgerators and hit each other with sticks on the Quad." Stephen also had a penchant for classic late 60s and early 70s rock and folk, especially Van Morrison, as well as a vast knowledge of Persian rugs.

Stephen was one of the rare people from whom I took more than one class; rarer still because neither class fuflfilled concentration requirements. As a junior I took Scandinavian 150: Old Norse Literature and Society. To this day, I try to re-read one of the sagas every year, even if I think Byock's feudeme was so much piffle ripping off Michel Foucault's épistémés. I always liked the story about the old Icelandic woman who kept track of the years by re-reading Njal's Saga annually. One of the intellectual highlights of my Harvard career was the North House seminar: Ibsen and Strindberg. No gut here; we read several plays a week and had at a minimum a six page paper due every week for the entire semester. When faced with that kind of challenge, one learns how to focus, and by virtue of sheer repetition one surely must become a better academic stylist.

I will also always remember Stephen's kindness and humanity; like the time he lectured a dining room table about why practical jokes were no joke at all (please I don't mean to make him sound a prig; just someone setting a bunch of undergrads in an überarch phase straight). He eventually left NoHo to become a long-time Master of Eliot House. Visiting Noho in June 1986 for a friend's graduation (Tom Mueller) and two others' wedding (Terry Martin and Sally Murschall), I ran into Stephen who said he and Jan wondered why I hadn't asked them to write grad school recc letters. I mumbled something about wanting to focus on letters from people in my field (English History and Literature). Truth be told I had made a tactical error in picking my letter writers as well as in restricting their number, and by the time I realized it I was busy working on an MA overseas in the UK. I did get accepted to Stanford, so it turned out o.k. Think of this as a partial apologia for the folly of youth.

John and Rosalee DiIulio
My junior and senior years I lived in Comstock Hall whose head tutors were John and Rosalee. They both hailed from Philly and were UPenn Quakers. John was a protege of Professor James Q. Wilson and has gone onto a distinguished if occasionally controversial career in academics (Body Count and the Superpredator) and government (Faith-Based Initiatives). At least he had the good sense eventually to tell Shrub to take a hike. Despite our different political leanings, I always felt John believed in the truth of his ideals and pursued his goals out of this fervor and not out of the usual desire simply to achieve power or riches. John and Rosalee's inner city immigrant past also served as a good example about difference for what was a shockingly white upper middle class (AT LEAST) student population at supposedly diverse Harvard (note I count myself in this group). If the pictures above, however self-selected, aren't a clue to this reality, then I've got some "beachfront" property for you in Southern Lousiana going real cheap just in time for the balmy summer climes.

AT NoHo, John added greatly to the intellectual environment by founding the DeTocqueville society which read the GREAT BOOK and had monthly discussions in John and Rosalee's Comstock digs. Most attendees were admittedly just Gov jocks sucking up for grades and/or notice, but still the discussions were broad-ranging and fascinating. They also served a killer double bill of homemade pizza and carrot cake.

Colin Bain
A native Scot, Colin matriculated at Stirling University and Cambridge University earning a B.A. (Hons) from Corpus Christi in 1983, before entering the PhD program in PChem at Harvard and working under Prof. George Whitesides. What I learned from Colin might seem trivial, but it has given me an adult life full of pleasure, for he a lead a legendary seminar and tasting on the fruit of his native land, single malt whiskey, at which I first tasted the legendary 18 year old Maccallan, alas now priced beyond my regular means, and fell in love with Laphraoig's Islay "peat monster that takes no prisoners". Anybody who first properly introduces you to one of life's great pleasures merits mention in just such an article as I'm composing here. Copying being the sincerest form of flattery some six years later I lead an extremely similar malt tasting at the Butteryin my role as Head GRA for Rains Houses.

Colin's post-Harvard meteoric academic career is outlined here

Quick Refrain
Hana and Woody Hastings
Bio-luminescent legendary House co-Masters, who allowed me once to dine with an Atlantic City-era Susan Sarandon! Woody was the visionary creator of the Hastings Doctrine that "Any student in North House ought to be able to get from any place in the House to any other place in the House in his PJs - or less." The hastings through the best, wettest Master's Happy Hours in town; that's why the House Council bought them the wood embossed deluxe kegerator.

Sharon Morrow
The home state heart of the house

Peter x(?)
Security Man and cartoonist extraordinaire

Don and Bonnie Walls
Doyens of Wolbach and a godsend re: printing senior theses

Kristine Forsgard
Who would come to be Stephen Mitchell's other half

Frank Mormando
No you really don't bake cookies with baking soda (strange as that might seem), but you're almost Italian and almost a Jesuit so it's o.k. You see you need an acid to release the bicarbonate or you're left with a bitter or soapy taste, plus baking soda has a tendendency to produce unleavened (read FLAT) endproducts. Simple solution: substitue Baking powder for soda above. Results: excellent!

Kurt Campbell
once a mustcahioed brash ex-ballplayer; now a regular talking head on the NewsHour

Marcus Wood
Dropped the art or put it aside for an outstanding career in American Studies. Also lost his hair or chose the Yul Byrnner King and I look. I can't believe I missed this venture less than 100 miles from where I live; c'est la vie. An Oxford First whose Hilles conversations/SHARINGS I cherish to this day (20 years later), even though he continually showed me up for depth of reading! I have never been so intimidated by an intellect in my life except for any meeting with Jan Ziolkowski!, and Wood was a sweetheart to boot!

It was only a little more than 20 years ago today when I penned the following words about North House:

Three-and-a-Half Years in Cambridge
…. After Spring Break, somewhat resigned and tolerant students shuffle up Garden Street to the Quad to discover their House. Thus begins a pleasurable walk from the Square. The sights and sounds of a city park, a police station with automatic garage doors that only seem to be open when one is walking by, and a TM temple will come to be common markers of their daily experience.

The separation which others lament, they will soon admire. The distance provides them with a haven from everyday students' lives—academic, social, and otherwise.…

* * *

Spring rolls around. By junior year, these students realize that on a clear day when dingy Cambridge gray has led to Yale, the Quad is the prettiest piece of grass east of Lexington. By Eliot a dog frolics, and up towards the steps of Moors frisbees, balls, and bodies compete to fill the air. At the same time they welcome a new set of initiates to the surprises of North House.……

Summer gone, new seniors trundle stereos, rugs, and books up from the basement one last time.…

* * *

…. To jostle the memories, they lie on the Quad one last time. Wandering through the breezeway, memories of the intricate ice designs, which enlivened winter, surface. A final elevator ride. Perhaps a word to Sharon and Lisa if they're in. Then a walk to the Square, past the Capital of the Age of Enlightenment, the police station, and the Common—their signposts of experience.

Tomorrow or the next day we head south to the Yard and "professorial" mentors who used to hang out in Widener Faculty Offices, upstairs in Warren House, and in the Union annex, now part of the Barker Center.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Sally Murschall lived across the hall from me during my senior year in Comstock. I'm pretty sure I horrified her.

I lived in Wolbach as a soph, and Don had just gotten his IBM PC (1980-1). I'm looking for Bonnie's white chocolate cheesecake recipe if you know where she is.

Not only were Woody and Hana's Masters' Happy Hours well-stocked, I remember standing under the trellis during nice weather stripping the vines of Concord grapes. And I'll never forget Woody riding his bike along the tow path and Hana leaning over the Harvard bridge yelling encouragement during our intramural crew heats.

If you arrived at NoHo/PfoHo for the 1982-83 year, I hope you didn't preference in. Half a dozen of us worked hard to keep that from happening: we went down to the Freshman Union at 7:30 a.m. on the day preferences were due, drank a case of beer at a table near the entrance to the dining hall, and loudly and obnoxiously harangued freshman to *not* preference for NoHo.