Friday, September 30, 2005

Keep The Change, You Filthy Animal

Now, as some of you recall, I pledged last month to run for Congress in the near future. That dream will begin to take slightly more shape this weekend, when the annual convention of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Buckeye kicks off in Palo Colorado Canyon. Participants in this noble experiment, ongoing for over fifty years, will include attorney Richard A. Rosen, my infamous Uncle Myles, and a certain congressman from District 17, whose brain I fully intend to pick as soon as a sufficient stupor sets in. This is part of an overall scheme on my part, under a working title of “Rosen & the Will to Power”. Sooner or later, the legendary Sam Farr will be forced to bring the ship into shore, and, when that happens, I fully intend to take over the reins. Unless, of course, it doesn’t happen soon enough, in which case I will shift my base of operations to more opportune pastures. I am a firm believer in the American system, up to and including the ancient and honorable practice of carpetbagging. However, this system, like any under the sun, has its limitations. Hence, I will make this pledge right now to you, my loyal future constituents: If they don’t elect me, I will take power.

Speaking of taking power, we’re all talking about Tom DeLay, who, in the “better late than never” department, just got indicted. Comrade DeLay displayed the crisis-management skills typically associated with his party in a Fox News exclusive, mounting an impassioned defense that began “I was first investigated in 1993…” Stirring stuff, that. “Friends, Romans, countrymen”, “Four score and seven years ago”, and now, a new pillar in the pantheon of public appeal. After a lengthy catalogue of “what” and “how”, DeLay worked his way around to the much more difficult “why”. As he movingly explained, “Texans deserved a Republican majority”, which is why he was compelled to break the law. Over and over again. This seems like a pretty weak justification, on the surface of things, but consider this statement literally for a minute. Texans voted Ann Richards out and replaced her with a guy who managed to lose money on an energy concern in their corrupt state. Of course they deserve a Republican majority. I deserve my own In N Out Burger right in my backyard, but thus far, I have observed the local zoning ordinances.

Somewhat less observant, on the other hand, are John Kerry and Bill Clinton, who, at a time when 60% of Americans oppose the Iraq war and Bush’s approval ratings have finally dipped into batting average territory, think that Democratic leadership means lauding the “progress” in the Iraq war and minor, nitpicking criticisms of the means by which it was begun, respectively. At a time when the only surge being experienced by any ranking Democrat is on Harry Reid’s EKG, two of the party’s faces, for better or worse, are exhibiting a curious case of political Stockholm syndrome. Kerry, as we know, is completely inept at differentiating his platform from that of the Republican party. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, no less, has been more outspoken in his criticism of the war than Kerry. I would have expected better, however, from Bill, who learned the hard way, time and again, that there is nothing to be gained by going along with the latest assault on due process. In this case, of course, he’s also going along with his wife, who believes that re-election in one of the most liberal states in the Union hinges on being the last person to admit this war was a bigger mistake than my last three kids.

The Democratic party, especially in the Senate, has displayed such pathetic vision that it seems like a better bet at this point to rebuild from the ground up than to attempt to wring any sort of leadership out of the stooges currently in office. The problem, of course, is that old politicians don’t die, for the most part, until they’re no longer old politicians, but simply old people. But what’s more realistic – overhauling the platform, or overhauling the personnel? As difficult as it is believe, Americans really do want change. Look at California. We don’t care who’s in office, so long as he’s new. Gray Davis isn’t tough enough on Big Energy? We’ll elect Big Energy, for a change! Because you’re kidding yourself if you think the recall stunt was anything less. The important thing to remember is, it’s change. Never mind from what. The country as a whole is no different. Eight nightmarish years of peace and prosperity, and we elect a new president and a new party to clean up this town called America. Or did we? Well, we came close enough for that to be a matter of some controversy. But, like I say, if they don’t elect me, I’ll just take power.

The rest of you, however, might put some thought into taking it back.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Degustation

Last night I was privileged to go to Monday night dinner at Cachagua’s General Store, where Valley legend Michael Jones whips up the best of local cuisine at bargain prices. Cachagua is not on everyone’s radar, but this is a gourmet treat, and a fair reward for braving the wild boar, charging deer, and crossfire from rival meth producers that makes Carmel Valley Road a venue fit for Luke Skywalker’s landspeeder. There is always a sizeable and eclectic crowd, mostly locals, but beginning to be infiltrated somewhat by the Mercedes SUV-driving crowd. It is locals, however, who get the majority of the love to be had at the General Store, judging by the terrific wines my cohort enjoyed last night, compliments of the chef. Last week, I called to add a few people to our reservation. I was asked who was at our table, and recounted a few names. The proprietor replied, “Oh, you mean the wine fuckheads!” This is why I love the Valley.

I have become, of late, an avid reader of the Cachagua Store blog, located here. Besides being remarkably entertaining, Mr. Jones reserves ample wrath for the corrupt practices of many local dining establishments, some of who hollow out their stuffed potatoes days in advance, or prepare everything in the same rarely-changed deep fat fryer. Reading the righteous indignations of a true chef had caused me to spend more time thinking about what really constitutes good food, and what I have done to advance the cause. My guacamole, of course, is beyond reproach, especially since the addition of a minor wrinkle in the recipe that has revolutionized the product as we know it. Obviously, I cannot divulge that here, but if you are interested (and willing to part with your firstborn) get in touch with me and we can work something out.

In totality, I’m not sure how accomplished I am as a chef, although chances are you can ask any of my ex-wives and get a glowing report. It might be the only glowing report in which I figure prominently, but, as Eddie Murphy put it in “The Nutty Professor”, “We do what we can.” Certainly, I have a ways to go, but I believe I have grasped one essential truth already: the food should never have to compete with the chef for attention. Just as the great Zen masters to not seek self-glorification, but rather facilitate the journeys of others towards the truth, I believe the great chefs strive to facilitate a journey towards true flavor. Cute hybrids and garish novelty pairings might grab the front pages of some lesser food sections, but innovation for its own sake cannot improve the art and science of cuisine in the long run.

Food is, at its very essence, a sexual experience. Most things are – especially for those of us whose minds have been in the gutter so long that the gutter has started charging rent. This puts the chef in a unique position. In his great poem “Tor House”, Robinson Jeffers writes “my fingers have the art to make stone love stone”. It is no different for chefs, who according to the graces of their art, are the catalysts for unions of every variety, from the sadomasochistic to the truly vanilla. In so doing, they may channel Yente, the matchmaker from Fiddler On The Roof, a subtle conjurer with age-old methods, or reflect instead the hard-sell ethos of Iceberg Slim, “America’s Pimp Laureate”. Ultimately, of course, you can’t force love. With the right Cab, though, you can come damn close.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Walk Through the Bottomland

Alright, enough spirituality, earnest reflection, and fond reminiscence. It's time to reconnect ourselves with one of the founding principles of this once-proud blog: sports and the hysteria that inevitably surrounds them. Sure, there are a lot of different kinds, like badminton and waterskiing, but there is really only one that matters at this time of year: college football. When I transferred to Stanford some years ago, I thought to myself "Finally! Football again!", and on the way over to the home opener, I downed a standard-sized bottle of Manischewitz Blackberry, a special seasonal wine well beyond the ken of most of you proletariat types. At the insistence of Comrade Wellington, I then downed a second, and attempted to go out for a pass. Shortly thereafter, I found myself swaying to the rhythm, in a manner of speaking, of the Stanford Band, with a cardinal-colored pair of underwear on my head as a sort of turban. Stanford beat Arizona State 51-28 that night. As I've so often observed, with a sad smile and faint shake of my head, "oh, the way we were!"

But, as Mr. Dylan memoraby put it, I was so much older then. Now, I am young again, having regained a childlike sense of wonder. Childlike, that is, if children are known to utter the sorts of words and phrases I did Saturday night, when Stanford lost their 2005 home opener to U.C. Davis, 20-17. Davis, while a fine team, is in the process of transition from Division II to Division 1-AA. As if that weren't enough of an indignity, Davis is quarterbacked by Jon Grant, formerly of Pacific Grove high, and winner of multiple Shoe Games against my alma mater Carmel. In the face of the many world-shattering events going on these days, it is difficult for me to claim this really means much - but, within the context of the game, this is unquestionably the worst thing to ever happen in the once-proud history of Stanford Football.

Clearly, a lot of it had to do with sloppy execution and lackluster effort. The offensive line, in particular, couldn't block a popup ad at this stage in their evolution. However, consider the plays called by Coach Walt Harris, which were as conservative - and low yield - as a government bond. Harris has apologized repeatedly since Saturday night. I think the players ought to apologize, without question, especially the linemen who allowed Trent Edwards, the quarterback on whom the Cardinal's hopes squarely rest, to sustain a terrifying injury to his throwing hand. The coach, however, is in a slightly different position. He has no bearing on the actual execution of the gameplan. He can, however, decide on the plays and the personnel involved. If a coach calls the best plays possible and his team is simply outplayed, he has nothing to apologize for. However, this loss was clearly divine punishment for, among other things, Harris being (uncharacteristically, I should add) such a fucking wimp.

Whither Harris, then? This is not the NBA's Eastern Conference, where coaches are routinely fired two games into the season, and, as Harris cracked, you can't get new players off the waiver wire. I am not going to say that Harris deserves to be fired for this. I am simply going to indulge in one of my favorite techniques: contradistinction. Now, some of you may recall Mike Price, the wildly successful Wazzu coach who was named to replace Dennis Franchione at Alabama. Following an evening in which a few strippers performed in his motel room in Pensacola, Florida, Price was relieved of his duties, without ever having even coached a single game. Although Price had not committed any crime, his firing was justified by many because he had "embarrassed his school". This begs the question: what would embarrass you more: your coach having a belated bachelor party, or your Pac-10 program losing to a team that was Division II when most of its starters were freshmen? And look who lost his job.

There is a lesson to be learned from all of this, however, and it isn't just "Christ, do we suck". Never, ever schedule an opponent from a lesser division. As a major conference program, you just don't "win" these kinds of games in any true sense. If you clobber 'em, you look like a bully. If you win narrowly, it'll give everyone an aneurysm. And if you're one of the pioneering teams that manages to lose one of these kangaroo-court setups, you might as well tattoo "Wait til next year!" on your foreheads and go home and bring on the warm milk. Actually, make that "next decade". There is simply nothing to be gained - kind of like running behind a certain Stanford right tackle. But wait, you argue - can't these games serve as valuable tune-ups? Horseshit. You get good through good competition. This is not to take away anything from U.C. Davis, who were clearly good competition. However, now is as good a time as any to invoke Jeremiah 12:5: "If you have run with the footmen and they have wearied you, how will you contend with the horses?"

Friday, September 16, 2005

Only a Lad

It is definitely autumn again, a season that, the older I get, the better I like. And, indeed, there is much to like - the chill in the air that will soon mean a fire in the long-dormant fireplace, the epic pageantry of college football, the gradual ripening of the persimmons and pomegranates in my yard, and the reassuring knowledge that, while I am not, many young people are back in school by now. It seems like all the kids who I still tend to think of as being perpetually little are applying to college now, if they're not already there. For many of them, this is the biggest decision of their lives thus far, against a backdrop of their biggest aspirations and anxieties.

I often think about the lessons I've learned since I was a senior in high school, of which there are at least several. Usually, I hold by Willie Nelson's doctrine - "wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then." Songs of experience aside, of course, I have my doubts about what good certain lessons are without having to learn them yourself. It pains us to see our younger siblings, and, eventually, our children and grandchildren making the same mistakes we did, when we feel so strongly that they don't have to. But, of course, they so often do, and it is no coincidence that, granting that we all make mistakes, it is supremely satisfying to claim that, if you had it to do over again, you wouldn't change a thing. Personally, I suspect everyone who says this is lying, even if just a little bit.

Looking back, though, I wouldn't have changed much. Things worked out pretty well for the Dude. But I'm still astounded by how rigid my views once were, and by what different criteria I evaluated my college experience coming and going. It was all that I hoped for, and none of what I expected. And so, I think of all those kids applying to college right now, and what I'd tell them if they asked me about it. So far, they haven't. Smart kids. But, nevertheless:


Why Do You Want To Get In To A “Good” College?

April 4th, 2000, is a day I remember vividly. The first chatter could be heard at 7:20 in the morning in our chilly A.P. Biology lab. “Yeah, I got in. Don’t think I’ll go, though.” “Me too, I dunno, I want someplace chiller”. You fools, I remember thinking. You’ve been given the greatest gift in the world and you’re going to throw it away to become beach bums? The school in question was U.C. Berkeley, on which my adolescent hopes and dreams squarely rested. Berkeley was not simply my goal, it was my destiny, James Earl Jones voice and all.

I was not accepted to Berkeley. With much resignation, I packed my bags for U.C. Santa Barbara, where I had been awarded a regents’ scholarship, vowing to defect to more prestigious pastures as soon as I could. With a chip on my shoulder too big for even the largest tub of salsa, I buckled down, earning a 4.0 for three straight quarters, and eyeing a new dangling carrot: Stanford. Three of my high school classmates were there now, and their stories (which were seemingly confirmed by my weekend visit) were tantalizing: diversity to match Berkeley, and privilege, opportunity, and tradition to dwarf it. This became my guiding light, my reason to overcome my natural inertia. Of course, it did occur to me that by looking so far ahead I was compromising my present experience – but that was no matter, I told myself. “What if you get there and don’t like it either?”, someone asked. “Won’t happen”, I replied, and rewrote my admissions essay for the fifth time.

I transferred to Stanford September 21st, 2001, confident that, here at last, I would achieve academic excellence, meet my future wife, and leave in June 2004 with my dream job. These, after all, were the benchmarks by which one judged the college experience; anything less and my parents would be ill-rewarded for their investment. Of course, I was going to enjoy myself, too, as long as I was at it. Fast forward a couple years, and you’d find me dozing in the third-quarter French class that I, like my apathetic friend Mike, had put off until now, but needed in order to graduate. I retained an enviable GPA, although I privately felt shame at how easily it had been earned, due to grade inflation, even if I had done fine work regardless. The idea of a future wife now seemed cruelly ironic, for reasons I won’t elaborate on. As for a job, I was grateful that the few classes I needed towards my masters’ degree would stave off that eventuality.

Thankfully, the fog lifted. I realized that, while my major might not have been the toughest, I had (for the most part) performed earnestly, on top of which I could unquestionably write. True, I didn’t have a plush job in consulting or I-banking lined up, but, I reasoned, I didn’t want to, and the challenge of finding something more unusual and rewarding might be a healthy one. There would be brilliant and attractive women outside of Stanford – and how! Finally, I was leaving with a collection of friends who had absolutely lived up to – and far exceeded -my loftiest expectations. So, if you’ve been reading along, that was why I wanted to go to this college, and this is why I’m glad I went to that college. Now why do you want to get into the college of your choice?

Maybe you don’t even really want to, and it’s your parents who want you to. If that’s the case, I’ll refer you to Ric Masten, the poet who spoke (wonderfully) at my brother’s high school graduation. He elicited his first of many gasps from the audience with the admonition “If you’re just being sent to college...don’t go.”

Maybe you want the prestige. You wouldn’t be entirely wrong, either. I knew, cynically or not, that my creative writing degree from Stanford would pull more weight with some people than the same thing from UCSB. Whether those were necessarily the folks I cared about impressing is another matter, but it would be a lie to deny that it opened many doors. And, to a certain extent, this fact is often reflected in the price tag.

Maybe you feel that the people will be better. If this is the case, let me say that the concept of some people being “better” is a hateful one, even if I once believed in it. On the other hand, there is a certain talent pool that comes with the “name schools”. If I had gone elsewhere, it’s conceivable that my friends would have included a top NFL pick whose true talent was the violin, a Marshall Scholarship-winning archaeologist, or the brilliant entrepreneur I now work with, but it’s undeniably less likely.

Maybe you think that this is the kind of place where you can truly be happy. If so, I hope that it isn’t the only one, because it is also the kind of place where you can be truly unhappy. And this goes for just about anywhere you can think of. Of course, some of the happiest times of my life were spent at Stanford – but it’s important to remember they aren’t the only years of my life.

Maybe you’re attracted by the combination of strong academics and vibrant student life, the chance to live in a unique part of the country, being far from (or close to) home, the bustling city life, the quiet seclusion, the diverse student body, the unmatched library resources, the undergraduate research opportunities, the athletics, the thriving counterculture, or just the way you felt when you set foot on the campus. Amen.

They say that “wherever you go, there you are”, and I think the key word is “you”, not “there” – in other words, the person, not the place. From the first tentative draft of your personal statement to the morning of graduation and well beyond, so much of it will be up to you – and, it must be acknowledged, so much of it will be beyond your control. I don’t know you, but as of this, the fall of your senior year of high school, chances are neither of us knows just where you’ll be next year. What I can say, with any certainty, is work hard, and good luck.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Of Time and the River

I recently returned from a weekend of backpacking in Yosemite, with three true icons of my masculine consciousness - Forrest Melton, John West, and Richard "Chard" Lake. Being around large rocks and humming rivers generally causes me to reflect a little on the passage of time. As cliche as that sounds, it's worth considering every now and then. Part of it is about constancy. This is why I love rocks - the music I listened to when I was thirteen now seems nihilistic and juvenile, the girls at whose feet I worshipped when I was seventeen turned out to be kind of mean, and the Beat Generation no longer moves me in quite the same way. But El Capitan, Half Dome, and Glacier Point are still as majestic now as then. I've been coming to Yosemite for twenty years - long enough, perhaps, to put the "semite" back in Yosemite. It doesn't get any less special. As Johnny Cash once put it in "Hit The Road And Go", a song extolling travel as a panacea for heartbreak, "There's magic in the mountains/And music in the valleys down below..."

The other part, of course, is change. As I was leaving Glacier Point, one camera-pointing tourist said to her husband, "We should take a picture of you with Half Dome in the background every year, and see if you can notice any changes." At the time, I didn't think much of it. They had the look of Yosemite Valley dilettantes - the type who probably didn't venture off the paths with iron handrails. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized there was something to her idea. We measure ourselves against seemingly constant things. Of course, Half Dome and El Capitan are themselves temporary. What isn't? That is not something I will attempt to answer here. We have the rest of our lives to strive for that, whatever form we imagine it to take. Spirituality teaches us to love the eternal, the infinite, the intangible, and this is extraordinarily difficult. So we love the tiny, the vulnerable, and the temporary, and we take comfort, some of us, in the idea that something greater than ourselves shares our love. That is compassion. Courage, on the other hand, we satisfy by loving the great and terrible - mountains, oceans, deserts, things that might not be infinite, but might as well be as far as us mere mortal schleps are concerned.

William Wordsworth was probably correct when he made that crack about how the world is too much with us. I think, however, that you have to get wrapped up in the world to a certain extent. This is why I am Jewish. We might have a heaven. Details are pretty sketchy on that subject. In the meantime, we set a lot of store in government, agriculture, temple blueprints, food, and lovemaking. As for alternative views, I think of my crazy religious aunt, who dismisses most people's passions and amusements as "worldly". Sometimes, I wonder if she really tastes what she eats. If so, does she want to? Some of you would agree that a lot of us could use more spirituality and less materialism in our lives. I certainly could. I think, however, that in the complete absence of the material, the spiritual becomes meaningless. For this reason, I think that people who worship the sun, moon, and stars are closer to monotheistic piety than they are typically given credit for. They are worshipping, after all, the highest powers they know. If their God is not my own, their prayers certainly are.

Of course Yosemite is worldly, and as such temporary. The same is true of people. But without Yosemite and all its sensual glories, God has a little bit less of a resume. And without people, for all their obtuseness, God probably has a somewhat more limited audience.

* * * * * * * * *

Now that the deep thoughts are out of the way, some highlights. Although the trip featured the esprit de corps and meaningful conversations I've come to expect from such inestimable travelmates, what set this one apart was the incredible wildlife we saw in just one day on the Panorama Trail. First, a large, mature grouse strutted fearlessly over to where we had stopped by the river below Illilouette Falls, prompting Chard to ask if anyone felt like chicken for dinner. A mile later, a red-tailed hawk circled overhead, looking very much like Robinson Jeffers described him. A few hundred yards from Nevada Falls, a bobcat paused right off the trail, and the crowd of onlookers it amassed hardly seemed to make much difference. A few minutes later, a rattlesnake brooded on the steep bank above the path. In the late afternoon, whispers of a mama bear and two cubs circulated down the well-traveled route up to Half Dome, and sure enough, there they were. Finally, as the four of us came down the mountain in hastening darkness, another bear, only a silhouette, could be seen moving between the trees. Whose woods these are I think I know.

The wildlife, however, is only part of the story, notable for its richness. The people are another part, and I would be remiss if I did not pay them some tribute as well.

Mark Twain once remarked that "We have not the reverent feeling for the rainbow that the savage has, because we know how it is made." Forrest, with his graduate degree in earth systems, offers a moving counterpoint to Twain, who was rarely less than 100% correct. To watch Forrest on the trail is to watch reverence in action, tempered with both boyishness and age-old wisdom that belie his thirty-one years.

John, in voice and action, is the picture of steadiness. It is hard to think of John without thinking of the cable car he built to bring people and supplies across the Merced River to his cabin after floods destroyed the old bridge. Swiftly and surely, John sees it through, a modern-day Western pioneer pulling his way across the great divide, one armfull of rope at a time.

As for Chard, he is every one of the ancients rolled into one. He is a warrior, if his shoulders are any indication. He is a sage, judging by the coat of silver on his chest. He intones with the gravitas of a great tribal chief one moment, and plays on his recorder like the subtlest of tricksters the next. Here, there is no contradiction - only human wholeness.

And then there is me, your humble narrator. But I don't really have much to say on that subject. Ask one of the other guys.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Brother To A Prince, Fellow To A Beggar

As we enjoyed a pleasant lunch (or, in my case, a pleasant cola) at a sidewalk cafe, my friend asked me what it was that interested me so much about Afghanistan after all - a pretty reasonable question on her part given the four or five volumes on the subject in my bookbag. Examining this sort of thing often shames me, as I vocalize one half of the answer - that it seems like about the most dangerous place you could be at any given moment - and decline to vocalize the other half - namely, that I have always embraced an almost eminent degree of caution in my own affairs. I was the only one of my friends not to learn how to skateboard. I went to school two hours from my hometown. I've never even tried yogurt. But, armed with a volume of Kipling and a modest trickle of the Highlands' better stuff, I become the Captain Kirk of the armchair, boldly imagining things in broad detail that were once vague and fuzzy concepts. And, to tell you the truth, I sometimes hate myself for it. I have friends who are traveling the world, teaching English and meeting exotic and beautiful people, not knowing where they will be a few months from now, and relishing the uncertainty like a gooey and mysterious dessert obscured by a low-hanging mist of chocolate sauce. Me? I just want a satisfying career and an Australian shepherd.

The question at hand, however, took me back in time almost six years, to the glory days of water polo. It would have been about mid-October, 1999. I was sitting on the deck at Bellarmine College Prep's lavish aquatics center, thumbing through what was, even at that time, and old favorite: Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King". My recently acquired friend descried the book and sidled over to take a look, revealing that he too was a big fan, and especially of this, perhaps the master's finest tale of adventure. For the uninitiated, I will not endeavor to give away the story and all its pleasures and intrigues, except to say it concerns two opportunistic loafers who affect a variety of disguises on their way deep into the tribal zone of the Hindu Kush. Through a few ingenious machinations and some firearms wholesaling, one of the two comes to be regarded as a divine king, the other his right-hand man. As the village toughs rally around the charismatic con man and his co-conspirator, the game begins to go to their heads, and it becomes a fair question to ask who is really being fooled.

The fellow to my left was, as I have mentioned, a newly acquired friend, but I had a feeling that he would prove to be a trustworthy one. What followed was an extraordinarily frank exchange of aspirations and fears, the upshot of which was a personal compact forged in the sort of Speedo-clad brotherhood only water polo players can understand. Now, we both had goals of the more prosaic type, beginning with admission into the college of our choice. If neither of us made it there, we agreed, we would have no recourse but to turn our backs on the American dream and set out for the tribal zone, where we would set ourselves up as divine rulers in the manner of Pop Kipling's loafers, incidentally named Daniel Dravot and Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan. We shook on it, and there the matter rested for a period of some six months.

In the meantime, we grew up, as schoolboys must do if they are not resourceful enough to avoid it. We discovered new passions - distance running, scuba diving, Falun Gong, and, for one of us more than the other, sickening acts of total insanity. We both went on the Carmel High Desert Trip, and on the tail end of it fell for a pair of beautiful girls who were a lot better than either of us, respectively, deserved at the time. By this time, we had received what we thought was the bad news on our college admissions, and, knowing no more about Afghanistan than that an ominous and poorly understood force called the Taliban was destroying Buddha statues and making things extraordinarily hot for practitioners of free enterprise, we tacitly let the dream die - no small failing for blustery types like us. But, as e.e. cummings might have put it, "...only the snow can begin to explain/how children are apt to forget to remember."

Months turned into years. We both carved out niches for ourselves at our respective institutions, foregathering at Christmas and Easter to compare notes, each one with some idea how the other one spent his time. In his mind, I was a model student, well on the way to a Ph.D; in my mind, his school's tradition of secret societies in lieu of Greek life had furnished him with a frenzied cult of followers awaiting his every command. It was not until the very beginning of our senior year that I was able to visit him in his natural habitat with school in session. Although my professorial pipe dreams would ultimately prove to be just that, I was more or less accurate in my picture of his life. He was a figure of no small notoriety on campus, the acknowledged commander of its most extreme Society, which, as its president pro tem informed me, was "not a frat, but a gang." He had worn a variety of disguises on his ascent of this dangerous hierarchy. One was mere respectability. Another was a full-length duck suit, complete with feathers from head to toe, inside of which he had terrorized his fellow students during the rites of spring. His academic records suggested a pre-eminent loafer. I, however, knew just how hard he had worked for his lordship of that night that falls, like an angel stripped of its wings, over the borderlands of L.A. and Orange County.

I arrived at my friend's house around 9:30 PM. I do not recall exactly how I appeared, but I almost certainly was wearing a tanktop. A pair of platinum blondes greeted me at the door with ceremonial kisses. He had seen to that. Inside, a crowd of young men teemed about, many of them rapping along to the Big Tymers' "# 1 Stunna" with the reverence one reserves for an anthem. Into this assembly burst my friend. Despite the overcrowding in the room, a path cleared before his feet. As I walked around introducing myself, I could not help noticing that the same courtesy was paid to me. I tried to act as though I were used to it, or knew why. My friend took me aside and began pointing in various directions. The young man in the Society ballcap by the refrigerator was a recent initiate, something of a personal slave to my friend, who oversaw all induction rituals. The enormous fellow who now came in the kitchen door had been made to walk on hot coals for the moral instruction of the rest of his cohort. This, too, had been my friend's idea. He laid a comradely, but in some way paternal, hand on my shoulder. "Before I took over, these guys were complete animals", he assured me. "I wouldn't have been surprised to learn they made blood sacrifices." I asked what had changed. He smiled, with the faintest note of sadness. "Not a goddamn thing", he replied, in the same instant giving me to understand that this was somehow for the better.

Following the muster of the Society, we set out to a nearby house for a mixer of some kind. When the opportunity was there, my friend would give me the background on various women in the room, many of whom were soon introduced to me. The content of these briefings was often quite horrifying. I asked about the girl in the neon green shirt with beads in her hair, standing clear across the room.

"She's different. Very cool, very high standards. If you don't have a lot to offer, don't bother talking to her." Clearly, a mandate was being issued. I did my best to meet it with the courage I felt I was receiving, as so often happened, like a transfusion from him to me.

On that subject, there is very little to say. I conducted myself with ample honor for the remainder of the evening, falling asleep on the couch, arm in arm with the girl in the neon green shirt, a few of the beads in her hair now resting on my cheek. In the morning, she left, and, after a wordless, muffled goodbye, I went back to sleep, waking up some time later on sunlit linoleum soaked in what must have been an inch and a half of warm beer. A few minutes later, my friend walked out, and observed that we should both be very proud of ourselves. All, he assured me, was right with the world, at least this remote corner of it. I needn't worry about cleaning the place up, he explained; there were pledges of his who would attend to that task when they arose themselves. But all I could think about was how he, and, by courtesy, I, had become pretenders to a savage's throne after all.