Last time, we met our narrator, who was leaving for boarding school. Today: boarding school. I know it doesn't seem like there's a lot of plot here, but learn to appreciate it. Remember Hunger Games? Oy. (Part 1: Carajo, Un Balazo.)
“One hundred twenty-eight day before”
Miles’s parents bring him to Culver Creek Preparatory School (“preparatory” is a vaguely unsettling adjective, to me) in Alabama, and his first reaction to the place is that it’s fucking hot. In fact, that is more or less his first dozen reactions. The sun burns him in a way that makes him “genuinely fear hellfire” (is that why Alabamans are so nutty Right wing?) and he discovers, to his horror, that his new dorm has no air conditioning.
When I first toured the campus of La Salle University, the college I attended for a year before transferring to Boston, the dorms I saw were wood-paneled, poorly equipped hell-holes. It was mid-July and they literally looked and felt like saunas. But I accepted my fate, as a series of financial aid fuckups and other admissions-related disasters had left me with no other choice. Luckily for me, a few weeks later I was recruited into La Salle’s Honors program (I kind of applied under-the-radar so it took them a while to realize I was a genius) which got me access to their posh, brand-new honors dorms. And that was great until I showed off my new digs to my friend Chris, who was relegated to the sauna-dorms. He brought another friend, who was also named Chris, and for the record they were both black. “So this is how white people live,” Other Chris observed, when I turned on the AC. Anyway.
Miles’s dorm is the regular, barren kind, and his parents help him unpack and then leave and he feels like he should feel more sadness at their departure (I totally get that, but the good news is my parents and his parents understand it, too). And he begins the awkward process of assimilating himself into a new culture. He’s starting at this school junior year, which is a fate I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I made exactly ONE new friend during my junior year of high school, and while he’s been my friend ever since it was a thousand times more awkward than any other friendship cultivation I’d ever experienced. I felt like I had to ask him out on a date or something, you know? Miles takes a chair outside and looks at girls’ butts (probably) and hopes someone will talk to him so he can make a witty joke (about how hot it is. Jeez Miles, punch up your act a little. I bet this guy has five minutes on airline food, you know what I mean?).
Later he meets his roommate. The kid rolls in while Miles is getting out of the shower (another thing they have at this place is a bathroom/shower in every dorm, which is another thing we had, sorry Other Chris), which is less vaguely homoerotic and more intended to evoke the awkward forced-intimacy of dorm living. My old roommate and I didn’t have much of an issue with accidental nudity and the like but it’s definitely an anxiety that you have going into such a situation. And you figure, John Green’s intended audience only knows the anxiety and not the reality. (Caveat: I had a girlfriend with an apartment off-campus, so I spent most of my accidentally and deliberately naked times there, so maybe I can’t speak from experience. Feel free to share stories in the comments!) His name is Chip, which I always thought of as a nickname, but apparently that is his real name because his nickname is "The Colonel." Pretty good nickname.
And we immediately start to build a mental picture of this kid, who is short and stocky and swaggers around the room and breezily blows off the fact that his parents aren’t helping him move in. Huh.
And there’s a bunch of rapid historocultural references peppered in for more or less no reason; atmospherics, I suppose: Before Chip shows up, Miles thinks of John F. Kennedy’s boarding school experiences, and then upon seeing his (Miles's) lousy new shower (picture basically that scene from Lost In Translation) concludes that JFK’s facilities were probably better, and that maybe they had air conditioning. Later, when Chip hears our narrator’s name is “Miles” he asks, “As in, ‘to go before I sleep?’” No Chip, as in Miles the fucking name. But perhaps the Robert Frost/Kennedy semiconnection is deliberate. And even if it isn’t, let’s pretend it is; the former was the latter’s favorite poet, after all, and he spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration.
Funny story: Frost intended to read a new poem he’d written specifically for the occasion, titled “Dedication,” but the glare on the podium was such that he could not read the pages in front of him. So he pulled a poem out of his ass, basically, and “Dedication” only recently came to light.
I don’t know why it took so long, but perhaps everybody forgot about Frost even BEING THERE because of the other thing that happened at the inauguration: Kennedy’s speech. You know the one. It had a lot of killer lines:
- "Let every nation know... that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty."
- The world is very very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life."
- "Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."
And then of course, the big one: Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country. What’s funny is that we generally think of Second Inaugurals as the famous ones. FDR’s “fear itself,” Lincoln’s “With malice toward none.” Kennedy never got a chance, but I’m sure his would have been a doozy. His last words, by the way? “No, you certainly can’t.” It was in response to the Governor of Texas noting that you couldn’t say the people of Dallas didn’t love their President. And then Lee Harvey Oswald begged to differ.
I like Bobby Kennedy’s last words better: “Is everyone else all right?” Wow, huh? Doesn’t that just fill you with, I don’t know, happysadness? There’s probably a word in German for the feeling.
A New Yorker piece* from a few years ago notes how weird it is that Kennedy and Frost were alive at the same time. Kennedy, after all, is symbolic of everything modern about America, and Robert Frost wrote poems about kids accidentally chopping their hands off on farms. Frost is Dick Whitman, and Kennedy is Don Draper. And Kennedy outlived Frost, but just barely. He spoke at Amherst College at a ceremony honoring the recently-dead poet in October 1963, and you can hear or read the transcript of his speech here. If you’ve never heard JFK talk about art, you really ought to.
(*That piece on Kennedy’s inauguration mentions a few pieces of writing on the subject of Presidential Inaugurations in general. There’s apparently a Franzen essay on GWB in from 2001 that I’ll have to check out. But I also dug this quote, from Robert Lowell’s poem about Dwight Eisenhower’s rise to power in 1953:
Ice, ice. Our wheels no longer move.
Look, the fixed stars, all just alike
as lack-land atoms, split apart,
and the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.)
Anyway, The Colonel. He sees a map Miles hung on the wall and then starts rattling off the names of every country, nonchalantly mentioning after a few dozen that he’s memorized them all. And you gotta figure you rarely have the change to showcase a party trick like that one, so we’ll forgive him for this (kinda douche-y) outburst. And I get it, I mean, when you meet new people it’s hard to resist the urge to forcibly define yourself. LOOK AT ME/ LOOK AT THESE THREE IMPORTANT FACTS ABOUT ME AND FILTER ALL OTHER IMPRESSIONS ABOUT ME THROUGH THEM PLEASE, you want to scream. The first few weeks of college are emphatically like that (don’t think for a second that I didn’t LOVE the fact that, as noted earlier, I had two black friends*) but it goes on forever. I remember at my last job, a guy told me on his third day “I’m the office asshole.” Oh, you are? He clearly wanted that reputation, for whatever reason, and I guess he succeeded because I don’t think he made it to day five. Anyway, The Colonel wants to be a guy who is called The Colonel and who memorizes stuff and who also wants to be all of these things:
- A guy who wants to read long books
- A guy whose father used to beat him with books, which forced him to only own like, Goosebumps volumes or something lest padre do more damage
- A guy who smokes, perhaps understandably
- A guy who is poor, and who attends “the Creek” on a full scholarship
- A guy who throws all of his clothes, socks and all, unsorted into his drawers
That last one is less something he is deliberately projecting and more something that Miles obsesses over as he watches him unpack. And then The Colonel asks him what his gimmick is, what his Twitter tagline is, essentially, and Miles tells him about Henrik Ibsen’s last words. Ibsen is a rad guy, and if you don’t know him stop reading this blog and go read “A Doll’s House” and “Ghosts” right now. I’ll wait. That advice should really extend to Miles, who knows nothing of Ibsen except that as he lay dying, he overheard his nurse tell a guest that he was feeling better. “On the contrary,” he said, and then died. That’s fine, but the last lines of “Ghosts” are wayyy better.
(*With whom I lost touch basically less than a week later. I mean, I was in the Honors dorm. Do you really think I’d associate with a non-Honors students? Ha!)