MY OWN “10-MINUTE UNIVERSITY”

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It was a brilliant concept. In the late 1980s Workman published 10-Minute University, a book and recording which purported to “teach” only the things you’d need to remember from a typical four-year university experience. Presented by the world’s fastest talking man, John Moschitta, Jr., TMU shrunk learning down to bite-sized nuggets on topics from comparative literature to physics to football.  It was hilarious. What I didn’t realize until now was that it was also sort of true. And I wondered, what did I actually remember about college? What did I learn?

Life, being what it is, keeps most of our heads clogged with the demands of the present. But the past is always there for us, patiently waiting to be remembered, reconsidered, and sometimes redefined.

1.

My head bounces first to Pinball Pete’s. I walk through a nondescript door into a darkened room. It’s spangled with flashing lights and jangled with the clash of tinny music. I feed two single dollar bills into the coin changer for my daily quota of eight quarters. For a little while, or maybe longer if it’s a good day, I am the Frogger Queen, the Pac Man Champ. When I leave I wrap my arms around my books but I feel so great I wish I could just balance them on my head.

2.

I’ve staked out a seat for the evening, end of the row with a little extra elbowroom. I need it: I’m a lefty. The ceilings are high, the lights are low and the silence is thick. We are all in this together, chins jutted out determinedly, all hunched over our books. The competition for seats here in the Grad is intense-get up at your peril or your rail back chair will be forever lost, your books and papers summarily dumped like your laundry, left in the dryer for a mere ten minutes after the cycle completes. But at some point I risk it anyway-I always do–for the lure of the instant coffee machine, a quarter for a cup of viscous black sludge, the most intense caffeine hit on the planet.

3.

There I am, managing to curl up in a straight back booth at Drake’s. In front of me is a dented metal tray. It holds a grilled cinnamon roll and a tiny tin teapot filled with hot Russian Caravan. Sometimes there is instead a glass of limeade and a tuna sandwich, served on WonderBread and cut into perfect quarters. The penny candy wall is just across the way, glass jars filled with everything from nonpareils to malted milk balls, lemon drops to licorice. I am a licorice person. Bored looking girls wearing aqua-colored smock jackets plunge in with scoopers filling red and white striped bags to order. I never leave without one. Actually, I never want to leave.

4.

When I was a little kid we were taught that Henry Ford invented the automobile. Or maybe that was just implied. I’ve never been sure. This may have been a Detroit thing, people here care for their cars so deeply that they identify themselves not just by the cars they drive but by the cars they drove. I am still misty-eyed at the thought of my ’71 cream colored, black roofed Cutlass Supreme. At any rate, I was a grown up before I realized, or was willing to accept, that Henry Ford did not actually invent cars but he did pioneer mass production.

That connection may in fact be what led Tom Monahan, who then ran Dominos, to install a genius oven in his pizza places. That oven ran on the Ford mass production system theory: a call would come in, one of us would take the order, the slip would be instantly transferred to the tosser who threw the dough up the air and stretched it onto a tray, tucking the order slip underneath, where it would be sent down the line to the saucer person, who then moved the pie over to the cheeser person, who would shove the pie to me. My job was to instantly decipher the hieroglyphics on the slip and add the toppings, the worst being sausage because it was sticky, meaning that I’d have to dunk my hands in the olives to moisten them enough to get the sausage on the pie fast enough. Then one quick turn and the pie would be placed on a conveyer belt that carried it through a superhot oven in a handful of minutes.  It slid hot and done down a slide at the end, was folded directly into a waiting pizza box before being thrust into the arms of the delivery guy who drove like a bat out of hell to get it to someone’s front door. All in thirty minutes or less or it was free.

My college job. I was good at this.

5.

I lived on the third floor in East Quad, an old dorm covered in ivy. No air conditioning.   But open windows meant fresh air. And sometimes company.

One day I looked out and there was a squirrel sitting on the ledge. He didn’t move. Neither did I. I waited. So did he. We sat in silence for a bit. Finally I gently reached over and placed a cracker on the ledge. He picked it up with both paws and ate the whole thing right there. After nibbling through a few more crackers he looked at me as if to say thanks then scampered away. I thought that was that. It wasn’t. Melvin (if he and I were going to be together like this, he needed a name) returned the next day and every day after that. It became clear that he preferred peanut butter spread on his crackers and he was also fond of raisins.

End of the semester and I hated to leave him. So I left a note for whomever would be taking over my room with detailed instructions to watch out for Melvin and to leave peanut butter crackers for him if possible. I hoped for the best.

***

So I think you’ll agree I learned a great deal in college. My own 10-Minute University takeaway is this:

I to this day I know how to enjoy my own company. I revel in eating well. Sometimes I move fast—other times less so—but I know how to keep the rhythms of my life moving forward. I can be patient when I have to be. I detest sausage, I love licorice, I adore coffee.

Oh. And almost thirty years later, on a visit to my old school with my husband and sons, the tour guide proudly mentioned the most popular club on campus: The University of Michigan Squirrel Club with over four thousand members.   Legend holds that the Squirrel Club, a group that meets on Sunday afternoons to feed peanuts to the squirrels of Ann Arbor, began in my dorm, East Quad, shortly after I left.

Photo credit: Jared R. Frank

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CHARLOTTES EVERYWHERE

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Naturally the thing I love most about the iPhone is the most antiquated thing of all.

It’s the compass, that directional miracle. Turn it on wherever you are, spin and see exactly where you’re headed. Or headed away from. It’s a nonjudgmental GPS without a bossy, irritating voice. I used to play with compasses as a little kid but unlike Einstein, whose scientific genius was sparked as a four year old by the gift of a compass, I just marvel at them. But I haven’t turned mine on in a while.

I’m preoccupied. Piles of laundry, stacks of work, gluts of emails. The pleasure of seeing how high piles can be stacked is sometimes far more interesting than getting to the bottom of them. In sync with the frustration of world economists, roiled by the possible “Grexit” I was feeling completely Sisyphean. It was like being snarled in a web.

How odd that the woman who manages to spend the summer sweating indoors instead of being warmed by the sun should think so much about the natural world rather than be out in it. But sometimes nature is both generous and bold. Sometimes it comes right to one’s front door.

Literally in my case.

I may not have mentioned that there’s convocation of wasps who’ve found a lovely home burrowing into the wooden Babe Ruth sculpture on my porch. Okay, fine, the idea of the Babe being buzzed is amusing but do stop, save it for another time. That’s not the direction I’m going in today.

They fly in and out, no fancy compass needed. I could have them flushed out but really why? They’re industrious and self-sufficient which is kind of a pleasure to be near. And besides, they’re just visiting. I’m told that after this season they’ll abandon this spot and find another place entirely. So I just watch them. As long as I don’t thoughtlessly block the opening to their home with grocery bags they just watch me as well.

This week those good people at The American Museum of Natural History were sharp enough to note and highlight birthday of E.B. White, author of many wonderful things both for adults and children, but who is particularly celebrated for Charlotte’s Web. I don’t know if all creatures would go to the lengths of unexpected friendship and lasting kindness that Charlotte did for her friend Wilber, but in a summery, dreamy state I’d like to think so.

But then there’s that pull. My compass points me back inside to the piles of clothes, the stacks of work, and the unopened correspondence. Grudgingly I turn with the dial.

And like my summer tenants, the inspiringly industrious wasp colony who’ve chosen to be proudly housed in a monument to one of baseball’s great icons, I start buzzing.

It’s not so bad. In cleaning I discover books and toys and gewgaws that make pleasant memories come rushing back. Ignoring the paperwork relaxes me enough that work ideas trickle and then finally flow. At last I dig through the correspondence.

Clicking clicking clicking, blearily numbed by ad after ad for CVS for Sears for Amazon for L.L. Bean, there was for me, a short and sweet note.

It was sent only to say hello. It was sent only to say that someone remembered something good that happened that I’d long forgotten. It was sent only to say thank you for something where no thanks was due. It was sent so I might hear what I needed to hear when I least expected to hear it.

Maybe this was what my compass was pointing me to all along.

It’s interesting fact. In so many places, in so many ways, we’re urged to be kind. This is a good thing. I think most of us take that encouragement to heart, to make it part of who we are and what we do.

But then too, it’s just as important to know, to feel and to really believe, that kindness will happen to each us when we need it most. Try not to be impatient.

There are Charlottes everywhere it seems.

Happy birthday, E.B. White.

***

“All that I ever hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” E.B. White

Short aside for baseball fans: although of course, the Babe wore Yankee pinstripes for his glory years, he finished his career with the Boston Braves, hence the different uniform.