Thursday, June 21, 2018

Live life whole-assedly

      A very wet Thursday afternoon, which makes us about halfway through Northwestern University's four-day graduation  weekend. That is, assuming a downpour Friday doesn't cancel commencement—that's the school's back-up plan: in case of "severe weather," whatever that may be, scrap the event. The kind of consideration I've come to expect from my alma mater.
     At least we aren't flying in from out-of-town. And I've been to an NU commencement before, 36 years ago, though I kinda would like to get in another, if the monsoons cooperate.
     So how's it going? That is, beyond the nagging suspicion that, with their money, they ought to have rented the Allstate Arena as a backup.
     Wednesday was my younger son's induction into Phi Beta Kappa, the honor society founded in 1776. The ceremony was small, in Harris Hall, where I was happy to see a portrait of Richard W. Leopold, my old history of American foreign policy professor, still gracing what they now call Harris 108, though back in the day it was Harris 107, as if that matters to anybody other than a nostalgic alumni. It does to me only because it's the only room number I remember, since nothing will imprint the room number of a class into your mind like a tough 8 a.m. class held in the Socratic method by a no-BS teacher who wrote the textbook. Unless I'm wrong. Prof. Leopold made sure we were always open to that eventuality.

     Perhaps memories of Leopold's incisive mind set me up for disappointment. The ceremonial remarks were by a well-credentialed teacher known for her excellence in situations other than this one. She need not be named—see, I can be kind—and her talk could be summarized thus: Stateville Prison is a scary place where I nevertheless taught Shakespeare to actual prisoners and here's a story about a prisoner learning Shakespeare and here's another story about a prisoner learning Shakespeare and here's another that occurred after I myself walked sweatingly into Stateville to meet this prisoner learning Shakespeare under my tutelage and here's something piquant a prisoner learning Shakespeare from me wrote on a paper that I read. 
     None of it had anything to do with the newly-minted Phi Beta Kappas in the hall, who listened with admirable patience. Nor did she ever get around to pointing out that Stateville is a really bad place filled with really bad people who, to a man, have all done really bad things. She kinda glorified them, to be honest, as well as the prison, which made my wife, an officer of the court, charmingly indignant. I might have given this feedback to the teacher, but she bolted from the room as soon as she finished speaking, no doubt leaving a number of those remaining wishing she had contrived to flee about 15 minutes earlier.
     Happily, the professionals took over Thursday. The Honors Ceremony, celebrating utterly fantastic students such as my son, was MC'ed by the President of Northwestern himself, the effervescent Mort Schapiro. It would be unfair to compare him to the president of Pomona College, whom I reported on last month, since it was her first year in office and she was practically hyperventilating with stress. 
      Schapiro, who has been president of NU since 2009 and at Williams for a decade before that, was smooth without being crass, humorous but not silly, riffing on the experience the students entrusted to NU's care.
     "I hope we didn’t mess ‘em up," he said. "I hope we made them even better.” 
Abigail Kutlas
     Speaking for myself, yes, Mr. President, you did. Better, smarter, deeper. Sharpened and honed and stropped to a razor-fine edge.
     Schapiro's other outstanding moment was when one of the student hosts flubbed the pronunciation of "Alma Mater" —pronouncing the latter word "May-ter" instead of "Mah-ter" not once, but several times, until people in the audience were calling out the correct pronunciation.
     "May-ter, Mah-ter, To-may-to, to-mah-to," Schapiro quipped, to relieved laughter.
     I'd have left the Phi Beta Kappa speaker's botch job unremarked upon, were she not put to shame so utterly by a student, the Honors Ceremony speaker, Abigail Kutlas, a learning sciences major, who stuck her landing in a brief yet thoughtful speech on the importance of not over-scheduling, a topic she made relevant to every single person in the hall, students and parents alike.
     "One of the hardest lessons we learn is when to say 'No' to something we love," she said, a line which would have been whipped into my literary recovery book in a heartbeat, had I heard it a few years ago. She talked about the danger of taking on so many challenges that you don't do any of them well.
     "Remember not to half-ass two things when you can whole-ass one of them,"* she quoted a mentor as saying, words that should be inscribed on plaques and handed out freshman year, and really the line that prompted to me write this entire post, to lead up to it.
     We headed outside. The reception was in a tent east of Norris Center, but I had to collect the car, due to an expiring meter, and would meet my son and wife there.
     "You know the way to Norris Center?" my son asked, with a twinkle. "Was it here when you went to school in, what, the 1930s?"

     I let him have his fun. If he isn't feeling on the top of the world this week, he never will. Eye contact, a firm handshake and "thanks dad" only happens in the movies, and I interpret him busting my chops as about as close to thanks as he can get, at the moment. And if he never does, well, any parent who is in it for the thanks is both an idiot and disappointed. 
     To be honest, I'm feeling pretty good myself, too good to be irked over trifles. I ran into Mort Schapiro at the president's luncheon afterward—quite the spread, by the way, well done, Northwestern Dining—shook his hand, praised the excellence of a certain literature professor whose work we both admire, and remarked upon the vast improvement of the college over the past 40 years.
     "I liked the place better seen through his eyes than I did through my own," I told him. "You've done great things to the place." Which is very true, a most welcome redemption. Or as the song goes: "Hail to Purple! Hail to White! Hail to thee, Northwestern!"

* A Facebook reader points out that this line is lifted from the "Parks and Recreation" TV show. In Kutlas's defense, the quip could have been expropriated by her mentor. She seems too busy to watch much TV. 


  1. Congratulations to both of the Steinberg sons. I'm sure you've made the old man proud.

  2. The thing I remember most about my sister's graduation ceremony at Northwestern was that they had the graduates repeat, line by line, a sort of oath or pledge or whatever. When they came to a line about " generous loyalty to my alma mater..." and waited for the repeat, you could hear crickets.


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