Read Lost in the Meritocracy (v5) Online

Authors: Walter Kirn

Tags: #Literary, #Walter - Childhood and youth, #American - 20th century, #Students, #Students - United States, #20th Century, #American, #21st Century, #General, #United States, #Students & Student Life, #Personal Memoirs, #Literary Criticism, #Kirn, #Authors, #Biography & Autobiography, #Education, #American - 21st century, #Biography, #Higher

Lost in the Meritocracy (v5) (2 page)

BOOK: Lost in the Meritocracy (v5)
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Before I’d been at Macalester a month, I applied to transfer to Princeton as a sophomore. It’s here I should note that my father went there, too, although he never encouraged me to follow him or showed much interest in my college plans generally. A middle-class son of Akron, Ohio, possessed of a girder-like physique and a lust for brutal contact sports, he’d been recruited to play football by Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and a number of other institutions, many of them based in the Midwest and which he was unaware held less prestige until a friend of his family clued him in about the mythos of the Ivy League—a designation my father understood as mostly athletic-related, like the Big Ten. He chose Princeton over the other schools because his father was jobless at the time and the university’s recruiter offered not only to cover his tuition but also to excuse him from the work requirement that was standard with scholarship recipients. As for the four years that followed, he rarely spoke of them, except to mention he’d drunk a lot of beer, majored in chemistry, and felt out of place at first as a public-school kid. That was the sum of it. No nostalgic stories, no romantic reminiscences. He’d made a few friends at Princeton but rarely saw them, keeping in touch through occasional phone calls, and when mail came that bore the Princeton logo, it usually wound up, unopened, in the trash.

Applying to Princeton was my idea alone. It came to me on a bike ride down Summit Avenue, just a few blocks from the Macalester campus, when I used a map from a professor to locate F. Scott Fitzgerald’s boyhood home. It wasn’t the mansion I’d expected. In fact, it looked like a house I might have lived in had my father not quarantined us on the farm. A few days later I got my nerve up and phoned the Princeton admissions office, from which I learned that the university took only twenty transfer students a year. This was a discouraging statistic, but I was used to being the exception: it was the only condition I’d ever known.

To bolster my application, I looked around Macalester for a contest, any contest, that I might place first in, hitting at last on a poetry competition that seemed to be attracting few entries. I’d never written poetry before, but I knew something of how serious poems should look (ragged, chaotic, with uneven lines) thanks to a paperback volume of “free verse” loaned to me by a pothead high-school English teacher who’d once had ambitions as a writer but gave them up when he got his girlfriend pregnant.

Here is what I wrote:

From an Uncolored Room
Morning is a confrontation with the visible
and the bold verdicts of utility
.
The toothpaste tube on the sink like a beached fish
,
the face in the toilet water
.
At breakfast I depress the toast
,
but turn away, determined not to notice
the hot bread swaying briefly in its slots
between the red wires
.
It rains, and I am reminded
I have lost all respect for the weather
,
which allows itself to be predicted
and visits the city purely out of habit
but changes nothing
for men who can throw off gods and loved ones
like cats from their laps
.
When my brother left on Tuesday
I pushed the beds together
.
I sleep on the crack
.

When I won the contest, I wasn’t surprised. Hunger, I’d learned, could be a form of genius.

Nor was I surprised a few months later when I found myself sitting in a Princeton lecture hall that was older than my hometown, writing down a new word: “post-structuralism.” I couldn’t define the term—no one could, it seemed, including much of the English Department faculty—but I knew more or less what it meant: I’d broken through. The student beside me bore a famous last name that I recognized from a history textbook (not Rockefeller, but close), and discovering that the name was still in use among living individuals—people whom I was expected to befriend now and make a life and career among, if possible—renewed in me a sense of dislocation that I’d been struggling with since I entered school.

Three years later, high on speed and applying for the Rhodes, I’m feeling more disoriented than ever. Late last winter, about eight months ago, I simply ran out of thoughts. I ran out of the stuff that thoughts are made of. I became mute, aphasic. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t process human speech. A doctor I saw pronounced me deeply malnourished and prescribed a regimen of vitamins, but my depletion was spiritual, I sensed, and also—it seemed possible—permanent. I’d been fleeing upward since age five, learning just enough at every level to make it, barely, to the next one. I was the system’s pure product, sly and flexible, not so much educated as wised up, but suddenly I hit a wall.

Adam passes me the water pipe, its bowl freshly packed with pulverized narcotics. He clicks the lighter. “It’s not like you’ll see the face of God,” he says, “but it does sort of turn your legs all warm and rubbery.”

I fill my lungs and flash back to that bus ride, to the beckoning bottles of cherry schnapps. Back then I knew where I was going, and that to get there I’d have to keep my head clear. But now I’m here, I’ve arrived, I’ve topped the hill, and my head doesn’t function the way it used to. All thanks to an education and a test that measured and rewarded … what, exactly? Nothing important, I’ve discovered. Nothing sustaining. Just “aptitude.”

That’s why we’re all here: we all showed aptitude. Aptitude for showing aptitude, mainly. That’s what they wanted, so that’s what we delivered. A talent for some things, a knack for many things, and a genius for one thing: running up the count.

Nobody told us it wouldn’t be enough.

A
CCORDING TO A PSYCHIATRIST I SAW DURING A LOW
spell in my early thirties, a person’s education, his formal schooling, does little to shape his fate or personality compared to the deeper, more mysterious process of his
development
. It’s not what we’re taught that determines who we become, it’s what we experience, he said, particularly in our earliest childhoods, before conscious learning is even possible, when the self is a welter of appetite and instinct and the world that surrounds it a sort of fog out of which vivid, mythic figures emerge, sometimes offering sustenance and comfort, sometimes delivering shocks and traumas. The problem is that these events are largely lost to us, unlike the behaviors that they spawn, but he assured me that, through skillful therapy and honest self-examination, people can overcome, to some degree, the legacies of their buried pasts.

I agreed to give his theory a try. I spilled all my secrets, recounted all my dreams, and dredged up all my shames. We talked masturbation, sibling rivalry, incest fantasies, sexual rejections, the death of a beloved childhood dog, the effects of a deep depression my father suffered during my early teens that was marked by frequent threats of suicide, my history with drugs and alcohol, and a hundred other disturbing subjects that I should have felt relieved to finally air. And yet we got nowhere. Nothing changed. I still couldn’t sleep, keep a girlfriend, curb my drinking, or pay my bills on time. But none of that was what bothered me, finally. What bothered me was that I’d spent the last ten months playing to my doctor’s theories on developmental psychology rather than telling him what I believed to be the simple truth about myself: that I was precisely the person I’d been trained to be, and that the essence of my training was to confuse the approval of my trainers—of whom he was just the latest—with my own happiness.

“It sounds like you plan to quit therapy.”

I nodded.

“A final observation?”

“Sure.”

“Your feelings about authority figures remind me of your descriptions of your father. You fear their power but also envy it. You tend to ingratiate them initially, but then you despise yourself for it and reject them, which is, in fact, a rejection of yourself.”

“I’ll think about that. Thanks.” I checked my watch. Eight more minutes of this and I’d be free.

“One more thing,” my doctor said. “A guess. You idolized someone once. You had a hero. You saw in him an almost godlike wisdom, a sort of benevolent omniscience. But then he abandoned you—or you felt he did. Is that correct? Are we getting somewhere finally?”

I looked down at the floor, and then over at a wall—everywhere but at my doctor’s face. Only moments ago I’d dismissed him as a quack, but I’d misjudged him. I’d misjudged him badly. The man was a seer, a magician.

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Describe him. Take your time.”

R
ear Admiral Robert Knox, Retired—Uncle Admiral, as I learned to call him—was my first teacher and my first love. I met him when I was four years old, in Fairfax, Virginia, near Washington, D.C., where my family was living in a small apartment building occupied mostly by people just out of college who were busy trying to get a start in life and by people on pensions who were just as busy keeping an eye on the younger people’s children, who ran around in the grassy courtyard, unsupervised, throwing rocks and battling with sticks. I was one of the neglected runts. My father was studying patent law at night, clerking in a court during the day, and my mother was working part-time as a nurse and caring for my new baby brother, Andy. If I fell and skinned my knee, there was often no one to go crying to, but one day, after a scuffle with a bully that left me with a bloody nose, an old man who was reading in a lawn chair called me over, produced a handkerchief, twisted it into a point, and gently inserted it in my ruptured nostril.

When the bleeding stopped we went into his apartment, which was two doors down from ours, and he dabbed my face clean with a washcloth. Then he made us tea with milk and sugar, which he served with slices of Sara Lee pound cake. His movements were precise, efficient, tight, as though he was used to working in close quarters, and in no way did he evoke the fearsome strangers that my parents had warned me to beware of. Indeed, he’d met my parents, he informed me, and he felt that it might ease their hectic lives if I were to let him watch me on occasion. He’d ask them about it. If they agreed, I should come over tomorrow morning at eight and we’d have our first “lesson.”

“In what?”

“All sorts of things. I’ll be in my study upstairs. Come right on up.”

And so it began, my two-year private tutorial under a world-traveling old Scotsman who treated me not as a child but as a first mate. The vessel he’d helmed was named the
Pathfinder
. It belonged not to the U.S. Navy but to the Coast and Geodetic Survey, a little-known branch of the Treasury Department whose mission traced back to the time of President Jefferson, an era of far-flung cartographic quests. What Lewis and Clark were sent off to discover about the American continent’s western wilderness, the corps of seagoing explorers that became the C&GS was tasked with learning about the coasts. Uncle Admiral’s part in this endeavor ran from the twenties to the fifties and focused on the supremely crooked shorelines of Alaska and the Northwest.

“Name the chain,” he asked me in his study, touching an index finger to his big globe.

“The Aleutians.”

“That’s correct. And from whom did we buy them? Which great nation?”

“Russia?”

He nodded, biting the woody stem of his dime-store corncob pipe. My pipe, identical, lay on his desk next to the mugs of milky chicory coffee he prepared for us each weekday morning at precisely eight hundred hours. Later, at twelve hundred hours on the dot, he’d whip up two bologna and mustard sandwiches. Then, exactly three hours later, he’d bring out the tea and pound cake. He lived as he had on shipboard in the Pacific: briskly, austerely, and by the clock. I found his routines reassuring and relaxing. At my parents’ place, meals were served irregularly, squeezed in between other chores and obligations, and were frequently broken up by phone calls, but at Uncle Admiral’s apartment routines ran smoothly, time never wobbled, and each bite was chewed and swallowed.

“Whose idea was the purchase of Alaska—a decision for which he was widely, harshly mocked?”

I didn’t remember. I scanned the study for clues. A wooden slide rule resting on an atlas. A polished brass sextant in a felt-lined case. Shelf upon shelf of leather-bound photo albums documenting Uncle Admiral’s meetings with everyone from a band of Inuit fishermen to the Queen of England. He stood the same way no matter who stood beside him, his arms at his sides and his shoulders squared, chin out. His uniform was an extraneous formality. His rectitude was intrinsic, skeletal.

“Secretary Seward,” he said at last, sounding as if he’d known the fellow personally. For all I knew he might have. Cortés, Napoleon, and Edison, too. I was a bright child at four, and because of my daily drillings by my master (who’d served as an army sergeant in World War I) a prodigiously well-informed one who knew that nautical miles were longer than land miles, that the moon tugged the oceans across their floors. I could also read a little and use an abacus. What confused me, however, was Time and Mankind’s place in it. How long had we dwelt on this planet? No idea. When had the monkey walking on all fours hauled itself upright and begun to speak? All I knew was that I’d just arrived here and that Uncle Admiral had preceded me, possibly by centuries. How long were centuries?

“Mankind” was a term my tutor used a lot, pronounced in the same familiar tone he brought to “Secretary Seward.” The word marked him, I realized many years later while riding the train back to Princeton from D.C. after sharing with him what I knew would be our last-ever pot of chicory coffee, as a type I was being taught to view suspiciously: a patriarch. A patriarch first class. Soldier, sailor, surveyor, scholar, Scot. Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty. At four, however, long before my fall into the bitter sophistication which allows us to disdain the figures who make our doubting—our very thinking—possible, I regarded Uncle Admiral as a chieftain and Mankind as the family we both belonged to. Mankind was all of us, everywhere and always, highest to lowest, first to last.

“This is a totem pole,” he said, smoothing the page of a loose-leaf photo album. “I came across it in a Tlingit village while we were charting the waters around Sitka. The figures carved into it tell a tale in code. See the big bird on top? That’s their raven god.”

“Does it have powers?”

“They believe it does.”

“But
does
it?”

“It may. For an Indian,” he said.

I pressed him. “Only for an Indian?”

“I wouldn’t presume to know.”

At seventeen hundred hours, five p.m., we broke for what Uncle Admiral called “Happy Hour,” which we enjoyed in the building’s grassy courtyard, sitting on lawn chairs strung with nylon webbing. For him, a mint julep. For me, a lemonade. Sometimes he brought out a wooden fruit crate that I could stand on while peering through his theodolite, an instrument of the surveyor’s trade set on a tripod with telescoping legs.

“Choose a fixed point in the distance.”

“I just see black.”

“Pull back from the eyepiece.”

“I see a flagpole now.”

“Between you and the pole is a straight line slightly curved by the surface of the earth. The line runs due north. If you tracked it point to point, segment to segment, moving your theodolite, you’d end up in the dead center of the polar region.”

“Where Santa Claus lives?”

Uncle Admiral said nothing, just cleaned his pipe. Fairy tales annoyed him, I was learning. His subject was Mankind. And earth, its home.

“The arctic is ice,” I said.

“Ice and tundra. Yes.”

“Tundra is frozen dirt?”

“Correct,” he said.

“I wish I could walk on the tundra.”

“You might someday.”

“Maybe you’ll come with me?”

“No,” he said.

From one of the windows of his study we could see the Washington Monument. The obelisk was a giant survey stake. It marked a boundary beyond which lay the facts, the magnificent facts of totem poles and tribesmen, queens and coastlines, pyramids and Pygmies. Some of these facts, according to Uncle Admiral, were on display at the Smithsonian Institution, which he seemed to regard as America’s true capital. The day we visited he took me to lunch at his club, the Cosmos Club, where men who shared his headwind-slicing posture ate chicken cutlets from heavy china, alternating their bites with sips of ice water. The exhibit I remember best used a system of colored lights to dramatize the behavior of gamma rays. It stayed with me because of Uncle Admiral’s comment that “Solids, of course, aren’t really solid.” I asked to see the cursed Hope diamond afterward, which I’d heard about from my mother. He said, “Be serious.” My nautical Socrates. Sometimes he was stern. What I learned from him, his master lesson—the one that would help me reconstitute my mind after it dissolved at Princeton, worn down by loneliness, drugs, and French philosophy—was that the world could indeed be grasped and navigated if one met it with a steady gaze. Matter wasn’t truly solid, no, but it was packed tightly enough to set our feet upon.

One day Uncle Admiral opened a cardboard box and presented me with a sailor’s cap whose eagle insignia and gold braid made it a near duplicate of his. As I tried it on he described to me the method by which he’d surveyed an inlet in Alaska. He’d tossed explosive charges overboard and used a sonar device to track the sound waves as they rippled toward the shore.

“Throwing bombs in the water. You’re brave,” I said.

“And, on at least one occasion, very stupid. I nearly lost half of my right arm.” He rolled up his shirt sleeve to display the limb. There was no sign of damage that I could see, but I took the excuse to touch his skin. Its thinness alarmed me. I felt the bones beneath it.

The cap was a parting gift, I soon found out. A couple of days after it came, my parents began loading suitcases and trunks into the light-blue diesel Mercedes sedan which they’d bought used from Uncle Admiral, whose passion for German automobiles was his sole material indulgence. On the car’s hood was a Rand McNally atlas opened to a map of the United States on which he’d shaded in a route that wiggled down from Washington to Georgia, where my father had taken a job at a small law firm that he’d leave after just a few months, as it turned out, in favor of the position at 3M. Uncle Admiral said he’d thought hard about our trip and chosen the route for a combination of reasons. It wasn’t direct, he said, but it was scenic and passed through a number of towns and cities of great historical importance in what he called the “War Between the States.”

“That’s yours to keep,” he said. He meant the atlas. Then he produced a ruler from a back pocket. “If you’re wondering how far you are from something, lay the marked edge against the scale,” he said. “But you know that already.”

BOOK: Lost in the Meritocracy (v5)
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