Monday, June 14, 2010
Me and God at Hampshire
Fullest disclosure: I have experienced nirvana on earth. It's a place where you set the bar in terms of expectations around what to learn, how to learn it and who you're learning it with. It's called Hampshire College. The good news is that I realized what a blessing this was as it passed by. The downside is that assembling a Div II committee has as much to do with getting a job as interdisciplinary crossovers have to do with the marketability of a Hampshire degree. Not much.
I conveyed those post graduating years of buyer's remorse to Greg Prince at last week's Hampshire's 40th anniversary weekend and he had an interesting and market-worthy response. He said that he didn't report to a jerk until the ripe old age of 45. He said a little post grad adversity might have helped him better handle this high probability event.
Greg also weighted in on who came back to camp Hamp. He said that most college reunions pull on the impulses of the founding classes and the more recent rounds. In the case of my Alma mater that means any cycle from the mid seventies through the pre-aughties only accounted for about half the attendees.
But even though the numbers didn't support too many chance double takes and flash memory floods there were enough ancestral underpinnings to leave this celebration to redemptions of far greater consequence than chance. In fact when a current student used a Q&A session as a chance to parade his grievances with the administration in front of us bystander alumns.
I turned to a total alum stranger and we shared the uncanny sensation that these peeves were of a perennial vintage and could be vented on any administration by the close of any semester (not to diminish the hopes that inspire these hard questions!) Perhaps the ultimate icon of Hampshire uniformity was Eugene Mirman's observation that the Q&A sessions of all workshops began with some grad saying how very interesting the discussion had been. "Now for the next ten minutes I want to talk about something very weird and only vaguely related to the topic we've come to discuss."
It's especially comic that Mirman picks up on the digressive patterns formed in the first workshop I attended on the role of improv comedy in schools led by Ari Friede 87F and Tim Sniffen 87F. Their whole inclusionary bent is to own up to accusations: "yes, I'm that jerk" as a way of moving beyond blame association. The tool they stressed was to append "yes, and..." to the dissenting opinion as a way of steering towards a defensible consensus. In practice the best response to "this is a terrible situation" is "yes -- and we have to deal with this." Subtext: you are stagnant, lonely, isolated, and we need to find our way out of this toxic environment. I liked the hand gestures for facilitating the consensus-taking temperature in larger groups. For or against could be responded to as five fingers (on board), 2 and-a-half fingers (halfway) or a fist (completely resistant). Great feedback tool.
I volunteered to perform an open cycle of "yes, and" loops with another alum and found it revealing (and humbling) how much I was closing off the discussion rather than opening it up. And I wonder why I'm hard to collaborate with!
The next session was called Making Media -- the Emerging Futures. Too much of this resembled a corporate round table about where to park your investment dollars -- the answer for now is cable. Higher abstractions like the future of journalism and participatory democracy were either trampled by this quarter's P&L or tabled in favor of some future business model that could restore our collective sense of 20th century equilibrium -- a trained cadre of reporters that process raw information into meaningful know-how.
Jonathan Friedland 77F hinted at the direction this was heading: "People pay for mobil information." What I infer? The difference between a set of Google results and the five restaurants on your iPhone that won a certain dining award is that you're going to act on the latter -- that's where the justification sets in. Eve Burton 78F reported one hopeful reference to Hearst's Times Citizen Union paper in Albany and how ad revenues were spiking on the days the staff promises to nail indefensible officials through a concerted effort to do hardcore investigative reporting.
Less sanguine was Jonathan's summation of his employer's assessment that what's bad for papers "is good for Disney" in the same way that anyone with a wholesale message to sell is happy to sidestep the retailer (or in this case the distributor). The biggest buzz in that message this week is getting consumers to buy their Toy Story 3 tickets online and inviting their Facebook friends to go with them. Groups of 80-90 have vouched for their love of Buzz, Andy, and the distribution model.
The last session (and the one where I bumped into former President Prince) was Dirty, Rotten Capitalism: Hampshire College Entrepreneurs Challenge the Hampshire Status Quo. This title implies an inverse relationship between the corporate and the public interest. Fortunately this session was about the attendees, not the facilitators, one of whom posed the ultimate gold standard for self-referential alumni objectives: how can we create more of me? Gratefully, the collective weight of the topic was not bogged down in Hampshire dogma and mis-applied correlations between self and collective interest.
My favorite response to the alumni role wasn't about "learning" or inbred innovation but having it "beaten into them" by the schlub factor -- the fear of being anything other than average that permeates the risk-averse boards of nonprofits -- why would nonprofits deserve any less non-protection than for-profits?
On the chance meeting front I couldn't pass Margaret Cerullo in the airport lounge without rekindling the memory of Michael Current. In fact his presence reverberates more greatly than any of the earthbound friends still within our midst. I talked up my Internet Research course with Aaron Berman. I also met up with Joel Olicker and reinvested my admiration for his prescient Greening of Northampton documentary. Perhaps Joel will release his musty master from the shackles of 3/4" in the less-than-handy industrial box. I also found the ever-humble and legendary "Gunther" who has been forever the guardian angel of the Hampshire video community.
John is the guy who makes the things happen in the overpriced collateral that school cranks out. Of course John has always existed several beaming signals under the official radar and that beacon continues to shine because of John's love of the work that Hampshire students produce. Does he care about hierarchy? Does he feel slighted for all the non-promotions that never broke his way? He could not be bothered less. In fact the one remark he took personally was when I told him that of my twenty addresses Amherst was the only place worthy of a return ticket. Now, that's an endorsement worth ringing.
Gunther did say something I found puzzling, flattering, and galling all in one breath. He said that mine was the "golden era" of Hampshire video -- as if the show Infinity would go on forever? To be more specific he said that the school lost momentum with the departure of Jerry Liebling and Greg Jones, perhaps because their interdisciplinary focus was framed by real world practicality. Man, just to hear the title "Visual Literacy" come up in cocktail reception conversation sent me to the warmest of fuzzy places.
One of many unplanned newer acquaintances sprung from a Gunther conversation including Jud Willmont F92 who produced "A Taiji Journey" -- a work on his father's odyssey to China to connect with his Taoist pathways. While we were viewing the work I was reconnecting with my first memories of the basement TV studio -- inaugurated as the spanking new color video mecca when Mark Geffen's Beckettesque dad played the title role in his 1984 revival of Krapp's Last Tape.
The Malarians: Head Music Meets Thundering Heart
Finally there was the house of Hampshire band -- those maverick, raving, psychedelic Malarians. The band, fighting trim in their navy blue turtlenecks, was in midseason form despite a double-decade hiatus. The animated tour-storming and play-list was finally unsealed in their recent Boston, Worcester, and NoHo gigs. Reading glasses anyone?
The irreverence began with a manic and cuddly Mal Thursday trampling over the reputation of the current ex-Yalee President. On what grounds? On the suspicion that a gradeless div system was being drummed out of Hampshire diplomas and replaced with the dreaded accuracy of academic "standards."
As the heavens pissed down some hard rains the dance floor broke open in a mindless abandon. And what burdens were abandoned for this fleeting revival? Pretty much anything a former Hampster does to get by in this the big, square world. Yup.
All those out-of-Hamp accommodations gave rise to the soaring harmonies and sonic exuberance of these garage legends on a stormy, raw Saturday night under the clammy circus tent. Those dance steps were not made or born but grateful for their improbable pirouttes through makeshift sanctuaries of past and future. Non satis scire: To know is not enough and the Malarians had us leaving the banquet hungry for more.
- Marc Solomon
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