Attending University

Iowa City Old Capitol

An excerpt from my autobiography in progress.

I arrived at Hillcrest dormitory in the fall of 1970 and decided I didn’t like my roommate and his clutch of friends from Western Iowa. I quickly moved into the Quadrangle dormitory with a high school classmate I didn’t know well. During my brief stay at Hillcrest, I met Jim, who would become my brother-in-law in the 1980s.

Construction of Quadrangle began during World War I. It was to be used as a training barracks to support the war effort. Work was completed in 1920 well after the armistice. It was a serviceable place to live with a big room, high ceilings, and a closet big enough for me to live in for a while – which I did.

We ate in the Quadrangle dining facility. I had been reading about macrobiotic diets and for a while adopted a no-meat diet. This may have been partly a reaction to the quality of dormitory food. Many complained about cafeteria food, yet once I went “macrobiotic” it was easy to find something to eat in the line. Macrobiotics caused me to lose weight, weighing less than 160 pounds for a while.

My grades were lackluster at university, achieving a 2.93 grade point average on a 4.0 scale. My approach after washing out of engineering was to graduate with a non-teaching degree in English and to take a varied assortment of classes to give breadth to my education in the humanities. The classes and instructors I remember most were Chaucer with Stavros Deligiorgis, Shakespeare with Sven Armens, American Folk Literature with Harry Oster, Modern Fiction with David Morrell, American Indian Signs and Symbols with Hyemeyohsts Storm, and Anthropology with June Helm. In addition, I took French for three years, enough to gain a basic level of fluency. There was philosophy, linguistics, engineering, art history, ceramics, anthropology, literature, and physical education. The classwork prepared me to become a writer, yet that wasn’t a specific outcome I sought. My attitude toward university was typified by the fact I skipped the graduation ceremony and spent the time listening to it on the radio while I tie-dyed some t-shirts in the basement of our rented house.

Tuition and fees in 1970 were $310 per semester. Room and board added $1,040 for the academic year. My $1,250 per academic year scholarship from the Oscar Mayer family, secured by Father’s friends at the labor union after his death, paid most of my expenses. I funded the rest with my savings from high school, summer jobs, and my share of the settlement with Oscar Mayer and Company over Father’s death. Occasionally Mother sent a check to help pay my U-bill. There was no presumption of going into debt to attend a state university.

My life at university was likely not typical. During freshman year I tried things out. Shortly after classes began, we went to a scrimmage of the University of Iowa Hawkeye football team. We spent most of our time there making fun of coach Ray Nagel. It was the only time I remember attending a sports event during the four years. I visited a couple of student organizations and didn’t feel enough connection to join. During sophomore year I went on a date with a female student. We didn’t click and that was it for dating during the four years. When I interacted with women after that, neither of us considered it to be dating. I did my share of studying and walking all over campus. I stayed busy with classwork even if I wasn’t that good at it.

Through my friend Dan from grade school and high school, I got involved with the Commission for University Entertainment. The university was a stop for touring bands in the early 1970s. My first year I ran a Trooper carbon arc spotlight for musical acts at the University Field House. I heard or worked on acts, including The Grateful Dead, Leon Russell, Freddie King, Albert King, Laura Nyro, The Allman Brothers Band, Neil Diamond, and Grand Funk Railroad. I also got a chance to hear musicians elsewhere in the region, including Ravi Shankar at Coe College in Cedar Rapids. It felt like we were part of what was going on in the national music scene.

I studied Renée Descartes at university and spent substantial effort considering his first principle, cogito, ergo sum, or in English, I think, therefore I am.” I wrote about my Cartesian outlook toward life. We are isolated beings, wrapped in a veil of humanity, closer to God, or its divine essence than we realize. Such veil, metaphorical or not, is woven of delicate threads, like the lace of Morbihan, or silk from China. We could spend a lot of time marveling in its delicate needlework or shimmering surface. Yet we are compelled to reach out beyond the veil. A Cartesian view of life if there is one. Some say we should live our lives in the presence of God and perform all works for its honor and glory. The Sisters of Mercy taught us this and had us inscribe it on each sheet of schoolwork, “All for the honor and glory of God.” If God is reading this writing, my offerings may not be living up to divine standards.

University was a period of trying to figure out how I would live in society. During my freshman year I was introduced to R. Buckminster Fuller. The book, I Seem To Be a Verb by Fuller, with Jerome Agel and Quentin Fiore, blew apart my desire for consistency and predictability in life. “The most important fact about Spaceship Earth: An instruction book didn’t come with it,” the authors proclaimed. Chaos ensued.

These were the times of Marshall McLuhan, The Last Whole Earth Catalogue, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Phillip Berrigan, Richard and Mimi Farina, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and Bob Dylan. I read them all. They were in the wake of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, whom I also read. If there were few female influences, it speaks to my education and upbringing. There was learning my first year at university. There was little consideration of what I might do with it after graduation.