“Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency.”
― Raymond Chandler
The most important decision I ever made was the result of a brochure. Lying on the floor of my friend Adrienne’s room, I picked up “Your Mind, Our Matter.” Her sister was about to go away to school in New England, a fate my friends and I all aspired to. She’d collected a pile of glossy brochures with pictures of places that looked like college was supposed to look.
“A liberal arts education is like drinking from a waterfall,” YMOM intoned. There was a quad with brick buildings and one that looked like a castle and nattily dressed students lying in the grass under deciduous trees, reading. 70 Steinway grand pianos, a Shakespearean garden, and a pipe organ.
I’d bailed on piano lessons years before, but I envisioned 70 pianists playing a concert inside the grand hall of the castle. There was an observatory and girls in plaid skirts playing field hockey and talks by famous graduates in front of stained glass windows. To a teenager from Florida, this was almost unbearably exotic.
I flipped it over. The area code was the same as my uncle and aunt’s, and I was on my way to NY to visit. My aunt said we could go for a tour. When I called, they asked if I wanted an interview too. Even at 15 I knew never to turn down an interview.
We drove through the stone gate and got our first glimpse of Main Building (like Manderly, but less brooding). On the tour, we wandered into one of those ivy-covered brick buildings, Davison, where I would later live, and woke up a student, still in her pajamas at 2.
The handsome man in the crewneck sweater who interviewed me had just graduated. Six years before he’d visited Amherst and Williams, and they’d shown him the campus and the lacrosse field and told him “this is who you can be.” At Vassar, he said, I could be anyone I wanted. An hour and forty five minutes later, they closed the attendance office and showed us out. He’d promised if I got in, they’d make sure I could afford to attend.
The following week, I stood on the platform at Penn Station wearing a powder blue Vassar shirt. A blond guy came up to me and asked if I went to school there. He was going to be a freshman, he said. “You should go there,” he said, writing his number and height and weight on a scrap of paper. “The shirt looks good on you.”
I considered visiting other schools, but most didn’t want to interview me because I was a junior. Also my grandfather was losing his money, and in the end, a guarantee of financial aid was too good to overlook. A ticket out.
The day I got in, I’d stayed home from school. It was a skinny envelope— my financial aid package, as it turned out. I had no one to call.
A new admissions officer took over when I was a freshman. We were the last class lured with “Your Mind, Our Matter.” We used to say the classes who followed were different from us, more pragmatic and focused on business, less free spirited. More likely it was just changing times: the beginning of the Reagan era, the “real” world.
(As it turned out, Adrienne’s sister was back in Miami by Christmas break. She spent a few months wrapped in a bath towel, before getting on with her life.)
The promise of 70 Steinway pianos had captured my imagination. Skinner, the music building, was on the far edge of campus near Sunset Lake. I pictured a cavernous central hall, not unlike in Mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria, filled with long rows of baby grands. How disenchanted I was to find each instrument sequestered in a tiny, soundproof practice room!
But the rest of the fairytale was mostly as advertised. I was clothed in rose and gray insignia sweats, charged to the college store on my student ID, and fed, and encouraged to write about William Blake and “Man and Superman.” I showed slides of Gothic cathedrals and Kurosawa films as my campus job and ambled across the quad in an angora sweater stretched off the shoulder. For once, I was taken seriously. It wasn’t until I left the country club to move to California for graduate school, sight unseen, that I understood just how misleading brochures can be.
I lasted a quarter.
Just home from a trip to Paris and Prague with few clean clothes left, I dig around the back of the closet for a party dress. It’s a friend’s birthday. I’m supposed to come in pajamas, or as my favorite author, something charming but complicated like that.
Who was my favorite author again? Nabokov with a butterfly net? Virginia Woolf walking into the river with stones in her pockets? Despairing, I grab an olive green velvet skirt and tank, zip up my suede boots, and go to work on my face. I reach for the glow lotion ($8.99 at Target), and then notice the little white tub.
The tub is 2 inches wide and holds fine gold powder. It’s about half full. It was one of my first purchases freshman year at a party goods store on Raymond Avenue. I paid $5 for it thirty years ago, not knowing what a deal that would turn out to be.
Despite losing a succession of phone numbers, hard drives, cats, lovers, and ideals, this plastic container filled with gold dust has moved with me 10 or 11 times. And is apparently bottomless. I put it on my eyes and my neckline when I want to attract a little attention. Not very often, it seems. Or just often enough.
We might accord the tiny pot of gold divine status: a symbol of the renewable value of a liberal arts education, or the deep resources of the imagination. But I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in magic.
It’s just a little dust a 16 year old who liked sparkly things and rich metaphors was drawn to, and savored. I’ve never stopped drinking from that waterfall.
published 15 December 2012