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Dear Yale

By
April 1, 2011

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Photograph via Flickr by The Stohlmans

 

It’s been much too long.

But enough about that. Don’t think of me angry. Think of me as I am, standing at the mailbox on a sunny September mid-morning, a light breeze kicking up a swirl of dust and aster leaves around my legs. Cane hooked over my arm, I steady myself against the post, and run my finger under the flap, heedless of paper cuts, like a little boy with a birthday card. There are still those of us who love the smell of fresh ink and newly pulped wood, the sweet gum of the envelope flap; who when we see, in amongst the telephone bills and the Humane Society pity letters, a simple blue silhouette of Nathan Hale, experience a perineal clench, an involuntary rectal bunching-up of joy.

Today, in celebration, I put on Black Watch tartan pants, with a navy V-neck sweater, a white button-down, and a kelly-green tie dotted with canvasback ducks. My granddaughter Mackenzie, the colorblind one, gave it to me last Christmas. Why grow old if you can’t dress the way you like? I always say, though Tilda sees things differently. She says I dress like a country-club Republican. I remind her that we are country-club Republicans, and she says, oh no we’re not, not anymore, not since Monkeyface invited his drooling henchmen to squat in the Lincoln Bedroom and do their dirt on the floor.

Tilda’s father knew Preston Bush rather well, even wrote the family’s automobile policies at one point, and she took the whole Texas move rather hard.

I have nothing but time. But at least I have that.

I make up errands for myself nearly every day; today it’s Wofford’s Hardware, where I buy a set of solar-powered walkway lights on sale, reduced to $99 from $299, because the sun never shines in Connecticut long enough to charge the damn things. Michael will put them in anyway. We have few visitors, day or night, and I don’t mind if they stumble. And then, yes, though it’s out of the way, and there’s split pea soup with ham at home, I drive up the long curving driveway to the Club, past the tennis courts, the young women in the short boxy skirts that flap so invitingly around their bottoms, and park in the Senior Members lot, next to the wheelchair ramp. A young man comes out to greet me, and I don’t mind saying he’s black, no more than I mind that I still think of him as a Negro, and still believe that Negroes make the best help, the most deferential and kind, because, after all, they are still human, which is more than I can say of myself on some days, and Tilda hardly ever. And it is only then, seated at my customary window table overlooking the lawn where all three of my daughters were married in a five-year period during the Reagan administration, that I take your letter out of my inner jacket pocket, right side, and lay it on the white tablecloth where it belongs, where a letter from Yale deserves to be read.

But not quite yet. There are other rituals to be observed. There is the removal of the toothpicks, the salting and peppering of the egg salad. There is the first glassy taste of iced tea, my first and only caffeine of the day, unless I sneak the dregs of Tilda’s instant coffee at breakfast. There is the spreading of the Journal and the scanning of the headlines. I keep my head down, intent, industrious. No one interrupts a man of my age while he’s reading. We fear heart attacks, sudden jolts, little arrhythmias. I could stay here all afternoon, three shifts’ worth of waiters silently refilling my glass. I have nothing but time. But at least I have that.

Dear Yale Family,

There was a young woman from the Office of Alumni Giving—a name I have always loved, because it never hints, grammatically, at who is doing the giving and who the receiving—who came to see me once, some years ago. We had lunch at this very table. It was May. The old beeches on the lawn still had that look of wetness, that intense, astringent green of spring. Her name was Melissa Hardwick; she had pale blond hair tucked behind her ears and sat up very straight, as if she’d only recently become accustomed to sitting in chairs at all. Her hometown, incredibly, was Hailey, Idaho, Ezra Pound’s birthplace. She had been captain of the ski team. Her major was Ethics, Politics, and Economics. We discussed Machiavelli. I don’t blame her at all for what happened afterwards. I gave her the plans in a sealed envelope, and told her, with best wishes, to pass them onward, upward, to you. Imagine, she had no idea who Jonathan Edwards was!

I bear no ill will toward the Melissa Hardwicks of the world. But to you, I still say, there was no need to inform the authorities.

It’s the time of year when I come to you hat in hand for contributions to the Alumni Annual Fund. There are, of course, many ways that you already support Yale—donations to your class fund, to Capital Campaigns, to individual institutions, through legacy giving—but only the Alumni Annual Fund provides us with the unrestricted resources we need to meet the ever-changing needs of Yale’s students and faculty. Our most pressing concern this year is a 14% increase in applications for financial aid.

I nibble the crust of my wheat toast. I take up a soup spoon and prod among the swollen noodles for a shard of dark meat. Last year the club did away with its old recipe and introduced institutional canned soup, with perfect white discs of chicken, precise cubes of carrot and celery: a bizarre food-lab experiment, courtesy of some land grant college in the Midwest, Porcine State. I admit that I overdid it at the member’s meeting. Mark Philpot, the president, is a perfectly nice man; I told him so afterward in his office, over a glass of sherry. But there are ways and ways to economize.

I want you to sit here and watch me as I think about the nature of the phrase financial aid. I want this to be part of our time together. The last child I interviewed before the unpleasantness began, before the AYA removed me from its list of Faculty Interviewers, was a young lady named Zhihua Liang, whose parents literally owned a laundry. In Hartford, on Butler Street; I drove by afterward myself to make sure. Zhihua Liang, as you surely know, had perfect SAT scores, and had already received the highest possible grade on five Advanced Placement tests in her junior year. She had invented a software program that had to do with testing the screens on something called a tablet PC. She had filed a patent application. She played one of Bach’s partitas on the violin and then discoursed for nearly an hour on Bach’s relationship with the choirmasters of his father’s generation, quoting extensively from German sources. From her mother she had learned a form of reflexology that she demonstrated on the balls of my aching feet. She took my pulse and gave me a kind of scalp massage. She was wearing a rather low-cut knit sweater with a demure silver heart pendant above her small but well-defined breasts. We made love for an hour on the couch in my study, and then I wrote her a check for five hundred thousand dollars, to cover the cost of tuition and books. That, according to my lights, was nothing more than financial aid. I did not need it demonstrated to me in a court of law—my check, in a plastic envelope, marked “Exhibit 439c”! I knew what I was doing. I said so at the time.

Recently I had a conversation with Izameyake Ogundigasagare, a sophomore (SY ’12) who lost both her parents in the Rwandan genocide when she was only two years old. Izameyake, who still smiles when her friends address her by her new American nickname, “Izzy,” came to Yale with the assistance of the Alumni Fund’s Aid to International Students program. Raised in an orphanage in Kenya, she was invited to apply after a chance meeting with Bill Clinton at the African AIDS and Tuberculosis Summit in the spring of 2006.

I am an enthusiast; that is the worst of my faults. A late interloper in realms where I have no authority, unlike, say, the realm of reinsurance for highly capitalized multilateral corporations, where I quite literally wrote the book. I waited too long to pursue my graduate degree. Melissa Hardwick, in whom green optimism sprang eternal, suggested that I would benefit from Yale’s enormous range of, as she put it, non-credit, Adult Education programs. In declining, I had to explain to her that basic precept of American philosophy, that there is no such thing as knowledge for its own sake. I was hungry, I told her. I am hungry, hungrier than any twenty-five-year-old. I wanted, I want, to get in the game. There are other schools, she said, and I laughed, again. In every age, there is only one school. And I have applied, in my late life, to nearly every one of its branches and tentacles: law school, engineering school, philosophy, classics, English, economics, poli sci. The chair of one department, I forget which, wrote me a personal letter, in which he commended my enthusiasm but suggested that my ideas belong to a discipline which may have once existed but has now vanished for lack of empirical evidence. This, to me, seemed a most ringing endorsement. Indeed, almost an invitation.

Why do I say this to you, you who must be embarrassed, and a little bored, by a recitation of such unpleasant, tender, warty facts, as if I had stood up in the steamroom, shucked my towel, and displayed my shriveled memberwith its silver shock of hair, an ivy-choked window of the old ancestral manse?

Why do I say this to you, you who must be embarrassed, and a little bored, by a recitation of such unpleasant, tender, warty facts, as if I had stood up in the steam room, shucked my towel, and displayed my shriveled member with its silver shock of hair, an ivy-choked window of the old ancestral manse? Finally, I have grown too old for pretense. Dr. Harriman has assured me that barring the no-salt, no-fat diet he’s harped on for years, the Gilbey’s poured down the sink, the day closed with a bowl of lentil soup, a bucket of wheatgrass, a whole-oat cracker, I’ll be gone in three to five, that is, my eightieth birthday or there around. A handsome and fitting event horizon. And thus it is time to discuss my Major Gift. There, I’m warming to my subject. I’ve finagled the last globule of fat from my soup bowl, and drained the last of my third glass of tea. The afternoon awaits in all its buzzing glory.

At Yale we’re used to meeting extraordinary people and hearing incredible life stories, but Izzy’s to me was in a class of its own, and I felt I had to share it with you. It speaks to our greatest aspirations as leaders in global higher education for the twenty-first century. The only way we can meet these goals is to grow our financial resources at an unprecedented rate. You’re all well aware of the excellence represented by our endowment managers and the success they’ve had over the last decade, but you may not know that income from the endowment covers only the university’s general operating expenses and scheduled financial aid. When we have those special scenarios—students who require not only tuition, books and board but plane tickets, visa fees, living and clothing stipends—we turn to our alumni as our most longstanding, generous, and passionate supporters.

I recall now—following Pomander Street down to Greenwich Parkway, my window open, elbow jutting into a stiff breeze—how Father and I once argued over Spengler’s definition of the word blood. Blood, I said, means exactly what we think it means, family belonging, and only by extension racial belonging, only insofar as we can associate people of the same race with our own origins, our own rituals and feeling of most intimate belonging, or heimlich, as the Germans say, homely.

Nonsense, Father said. His mouth convulsed; he spat a ribbon of phlegm into his handkerchief. Spengler couldn’t have cared less about family. Do I have a proprietary concern for my family? Certainly. Do I have a spiritual concern for my family? Not at all. The blood is the symbol of the living, he recited, eyes closed, the blood of the ancestors flows through the chain of generations and binds them in a great linkage of destiny, beat, and time. All you’re saying is that he wasn’t superstitious. Does anyone believe anymore in that octoroon nonsense, all that stuff about Aryan skulls and Semitic noses? Why even bother, when the obvious is right in front of our noses? There’s them, and them, and them, and us. It doesn’t take a scholar or a scientist to figure out the difference between me and Herschel Rosensweig. Why debate definitions of an iceberg when you’re on the Titanic’s tilting deck?

This was, to him, the alpha and omega of my education, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, The Decline of the West, for which I was required to spend my junior year of high school at the Kopf Gymnasium in Tübingen, learning to curse in Bavarian. It lay on my bedside table beginning in sixth grade; we read it at night, alongside Adam Smith, The Prince, Martin Luther, Karl Barth, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Like all closet intellectuals, Father had a book of his own, too, a yellowing cinderblock-sized manuscript held together with cracking rubber bands. Occasionally he took it from its locked drawer and read me a chapter. There was a Thomist critique of Nietzsche, an inventory of fallacies in Freud, a section titled “Andrew Carnegie, Presbyterian übermensch.” He had once dreamed of reconciling the Industrial Revolution with Biblical prophecy, predestination and the Will to Power. But then—around the time he was turned down for President at Chubb, I learned, years later—he read Spengler, and his passion for synthesis, for the final proof, simply melted away, like ice in gin. Our world is collapsing, he was so fond of repeating, and all we can preserve is our dignity and honor. And a sense of proportion. That’s the first thing that goes, isn’t it? Why make a loan at six percent if you can convert it to a credit card at twenty-five? We’ve gone from the logic of men to the logic of leeches.

All of us have bad habits, our little bugbears, our red-nosed playground hatreds, and what else is education, viewed from a certain angle, than a process of smoothing, streamlining, subsuming, if not extinguishing, them? That was what always impressed me about Father. He could have been a John Bircher. He could have been a Lindbergh. But he funneled his rage into books, seeking, as it were, a justification for himself. A way of living without apology. When I mentioned Spengler to my professors at the Gymnasium they pretended never to have heard of him. Oh yes, one said, finally, he was one of those Weimar cult figures, an eccentric mystic. His work was translated into English? Really? I came home with Jung instead, and Hermann Hesse, and a first edition of The Tin Drum. I went for long walks in the snow behind our house. I watched coverage of the Emmett Till trial on the eleven o’clock news, tears rolling down my cheeks. Across the dinner table my father gazed at me sorrowfully, an El Greco Christ. May you never have a son, his eyes said. I would have liked to find a way of saying I still respected him.

It wasn’t until his mind started to fail—this was in the late fifties, the atrophying ease of the Eisenhower years—that Father began speaking in company about The Jews, and what had lain submerged all those years released itself in a torrent. There were a few unpleasant Thanksgivings and Christmases until I managed to have Dr. Cromwell declare him delusional and pack him away to the Thetford Rest Home, where he had no rest at all and gave none to the staff. He would talk to anyone who was listening, or not listening, about the great genius of an ethnic group devoted only to enriching and pleasing itself, a club maintained by one absolute rule, tradition, and a rulebook as old as writing itself. He, too, wrote letters. In another era—when there was only the Alumni Office, and I was the corresponding secretary of the Greenwich Yale Club—the office manager in New Haven showed me the file of Father’s letters to President Griswold, with photostats of the checks attached. The later ones were no more than rants, scrawled across his old Chubb stationery, and the checks were for fantastic amounts: one for twenty million dollars, back when that was still a lot of money. In the end, after the policies had been revised, he began addressing the letters to President Rothschild.

What I don’t understand, he often said aloud, regardless of who was listening, is, why do they want our schools? Don’t they have their own, better, schools? Brandeis, Brown, Columbia? Why should they waste their money, their energy, where it’s not wanted? It’s nonsense, this business of assimilation. Can’t they see where it got them, the last time they tried it? At one point he even tried to set up a scholarship fund at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, solely for American Jews who promised not to apply to Yale. The Israeli embassy contacted the FBI, and two agents actually visited him and Mother up in Booth Bay. Mossad tracked me down, he wrote me in a telegram. Phones tapped. No further contact until Labor Day.

In his last week of life—early October of 1962—I maneuvered him in his wheelchair to the south-facing porch of the Home, looking out over Mt. Tom. Someone had handed him a LIFE magazine, and he flapped the pages back and forth, staring at pictures of Kennedy and Khruschev. What I can’t stand, he said finally, isn’t this, though this is bad enough. It’s knowing that in your lifetime we’ll have one of them in the White House. The Catholics, well, they don’t have Kennedy in the pocket. They don’t have a plan.

At least you won’t be around to see it.

Some legacy I’ve left you, he said. Never let it be said I didn’t do what I could to stop them.

I couldn’t resist; I bent over his snowy head, and whispered, God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.

What’s that? he said. Speak up!

Oh, nothing, I said. A bit of Calvin. Something you believed in once.

You’ve never heard of Franciscus Gormarus, then. He took care of that business at the Synod of Dordecht in 1618. Those who reject the offer of conversion are excluded by default. But theologically speaking I’ve always held to Luther’s view. Von den Jüden und iren Lügen.

Father, I said, you wouldn’t presume to divine interference.

It isn’t interference to try and preserve what’s yours.

But it isn’t ours. That’s my point.

Call Hymes Thayer, he said. I’m changing the will. I always knew you were a closet socialist. No wonder I wouldn’t let them tap you for Bones.

The money isn’t ours, I persisted. It—it—flows through us, doesn’t it? For the next generation. The question is, who gets to choose? We don’t. The universe chooses. Or God, if that makes you happier. For his own reasons. Isn’t that the whole point? I mean, for heaven’s sake, we’re not particularly special.

I’d rather see it go up in smoke. Ha! Like certain people I could mention. Certain people who missed their calling the last time around.

His face had become a gargoyle’s: the witch’s peak, the pointed chin, the scythe-shaped nose. I stood up and walked away. It was all I could do. At the front desk I asked the nurse to take charge of Mr. Proctor while I placed a call from the pay phone; then I found my car and drove home. Needless to say, it was a closed-casket funeral.

Not long ago, I spoke over the phone with one of our most senior alumni, Sam Winslow, SY ’28. Sam, the only living member of his class, remembers visits to campus by Calvin Coolidge, George Bernard Shaw, and Edith Wharton. He regretted not being able to attend last year’s reunion due to ill health, but he was delighted to receive a visit by Tiffany Jackson, president of the class of 2009. Sam, who calls himself “a lifelong believer in progress and development,” says of Yale in the twenty-first century that “it’s different from the Yale I attended in every conceivable way, except the ways that matter most.” He credits his own longevity to one word: “adaptability.”

I shouldn’t have to mention this here, but I was, very briefly, brought in as a consultant on reinsurance matters to the meetings of the Yale Corporation, from April to August of 1983. Professionally it should go without saying that those were the happiest months of my career. I worked myself to a froth. I had night sweats. I slept on the couch in my office. I took on, and abandoned, a smoking habit. When it was all over I went to a party at the home of a younger colleague, Class of 1967, on East 77th Street and Park, and snorted cocaine for the first and only time in my life. And it was in that ecstatic state—on a rooftop patio, at some ungodly hour of the morning, after the exquisite Thai prostitutes had left—that I had the first of my visions.

And I ask you, as I have asked myself my entire life, where is Yale, exactly? Can we locate it in its symbols, in beloved old Harkness, in Veritas et Lux? Of course not. We are our money. How much more baldly can I put things?

Portfolio managers, I’m told, visualize their largest accounts in bar graphs and flow charts. The true visionaries see numbers as swans, their feathers ruffled by the winds of market turbulence, or as sand dunes in the Sahara, their tops delicately shaved away minute by minute as the manager’s fees accumulate. I have never had this talent. In insurance we don’t see risk. But on that rooftop I did: I saw the number, our number, as a tower, an obelisk, three-sided, shining, and absolutely black. Light seemed to fall into it.

The Gnostics, as you know, say that at the moment of true knowledge our earthly trappings simply evaporate; we no longer feel our bodies or see our surroundings, except briefly, fleetingly, as the mirage dissipates, and we are suffused with glowing joy at being united with the light. And I ask you, as I have asked myself my entire life, where is Yale, exactly? Can we locate it in its symbols, in beloved old Harkness, in Veritas et Lux? Of course not. We are our money. How much more baldly can I put things? Our money which is not ours, which belongs to the future, our life-giving fountain, may it ever accumulate, may it gather power unto itself!

Occasionally I’m asked why it is I feel such commitment to a position raising money for an institution that already has a great deal of money. My answer is always very simple: with our great resources comes great responsibility. Staying the same size—staying the same in any way—is not an option in a complex and expanding world. It’s because you appreciate this fact that I know you’ll make this another successful year for the Alumni Fund.

My proposal, then? My Institute. The Proctor Institute. I see it in one of the stone mansions on Hillhouse, but I leave the real estate concerns up to you. It could be in a basement. It could be a rural retreat. What matters is that it exists, and that every undergraduate, on the day they arrive, receive a letter in his or her box in Yale Station, giving them a day and time for an appointment.

They arrive, I see it now, one at a time, in their scrubby clothes, their hooded sweatshirts and fashionably ripped jeans, and find a dimly lit, plush-carpeted, sweet-smelling room. Beautiful olive-skinned women invite them to change into robes and escort them to a bubbling hot bath. There is champagne, and a lovely light meal. There are massages offered in private rooms. There are other experiences available, only for the asking. After an interval of two hours, the students arrive, flushed and sleek, in a conference room, with a circle of couches around an advanced holographic computer. More women arrive, bearing pots of exquisite tea, slow-brewed Ethiopian coffee. A Yale representative greets them and dims the lights. And there, in front of them, a glowing orb, a monument, a number in dancing laser beams, as the market fluctuates that day.

What should he say to them? What do we all wish we could say to them, our precious offspring, these striplings, these fawns? Look around. Take note of one another. What meaning do you have, separately, individually? A thousand people wanted to take your place. Why are you here? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter, does it? This is America; we don’t have titles, we don’t have pedigrees, we have money. And what is the meaning of money? Like water, it flows everywhere, but always returns to its source. What do you want in life? We can give it to you. As long as you return the favor.

Look around. I have tears in my eyes, soppy old soul that I am, and have to pull over onto the narrow grassy strip. Look around, I want to say to them. Touch each other. Love each other. Conjugate, for God’s sakes, you Changs and al-Abiyas, you Wheatcrofts and Gopals! Pool your lucky genes!

Spengler was, in the end, a prisoner of his own Alpine romance, a rapture of Goethe and Heine, edelweiss and kuchen made by hand. What would he say now, if he found himself in any airport’s first-class lounge, in a club chair, with a rum and Coke, a pocketful of Viagra, and a beautiful blonde Silliman College graduate, watching the jets take off and land in a grave, continuous motion? What would Father say? All the liquids we bear around, all our semen, all our blood, the luscious rinse of our membranes, why shouldn’t it flow into the one place where liquidity actually matters? Why shouldn’t we live a life without apology?

Yours,

Our house is set back nearly a quarter of a mile from the road, on a slight rise; the whole front of the property is a long, sloping lawn, that comes down to a fringe of old oaks around Warbling Brook, and to the left of the driveway, behind post fences, are the horse pastures, the barn just visible next to the woods on the opposite side. When the girls were still at home we owned four and five horses at a time, Morgans, and had family rides on Sundays. Now the pastures are overgrown with ragweed and thistle, impossible to mow, and pitted with hidden sinkholes, thanks to poor drainage. Ride a horse there now and you’d break his leg. I park at the mailbox, leaving the keys inside for Michael, and walk up the driveway: my daily constitutional, such as it is. This way, if I pitch over, at the very least I’ll be on my own property, not a burden to the taxpayers. Tilda, who has been watercoloring, and haranguing one child or another over the phone, comes out onto the front porch to “warch” me, hands on her hips. I make slow but steady progress. In one hand, I bear a letter from Yale; it flaps lightly, teasingly, with every jolting step. You who are looking at me now, who have been with me from this journey, you who see me, frankly, now, as an integer, see me now turned back into material, if only for a minute, before I go up to my study and call my accountant. See me for this once as the human being I might have been, and then I will dissolve myself, joyfully, finally, but with a tiny residue of sadness for the world I have excreted and left behind.

G

Row_author-1.jpgJess Row is the author of the story collections The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost, which was published last month. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Granta, Conjunctions, Slate, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at the College of New Jersey and the Vermont College of Fine Arts. You can track his movements at jessrow.com.

Writer’s Recommendations

For the last month I’ve been wrapped up in José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis,

which is one of those perfect twentieth-century European novels in which very little happens—it’s all atmosphere and subtly shaded rumination.

I also recently read Thomas Bernhard’s Concrete, another astonishing European novel of a different kind—a novel that ought not to work, that ought to be extremely “difficult,” but in fact isn’t (I finished it in two days).

Marcus Boon’s In Praise of Copying is a provocative and intriguing (if not completely successful) book that should be more widely read and discussed—I was disappointed that it didn’t get more press when it was published last fall.

I’m very much looking forward to Mat Johnson’s Pym: A Novel, which I just received in the mail—a mixture of social satire and science fiction, which seems to be the direction of a lot of novels these days (including, gulp, the one I’m working on).

The one recent book I would recommend unequivocally, to anyone, is Charles Baxter’s Gryphon: New and Selected Stories, which was published in January. Baxter is one of the greatest masters of the contemporary American short story—his work is rooted in the realist revival of the early 1980s, but it’s always been much more ambitious than that. Unlike many of his peers, he has a very skeptical attitude toward the whole project of modernist prose fiction and the strenuous efforts of the postmodernists to disavow that project. His stories may seem deliberately modest and small-scale, but there are always huge aesthetic and moral questions at play under the surface.

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