What Goes Around, Storms Around.
Saturn, gem of the universe, the Ferrari of planets:
A spongy hydrogen ball over 740 million miles out
there—large enough to hold 750 Earths, light enough
to float on water. Behold the mathematical perfection
of its rings, the operatic static between them as they span
165,000 miles, magneto-radiating 150 feet icy thick. And
that’s not the half of it, sonny boy…”
Dame Thornia DeWilde
With all due sympathy and respect:
However, this tale is from an earlier, pearlier time…
Boulder, Colorado: 1978
Should have seen this coming—damned if she didn’t say it would…and I couldn’t begin to shake it if I tried.
No, not here, not yet: I’d simply ventured downtown to bemoan, bemingle, walk off some vexations, lose myself like some stress-tested lab rat in the crowd—just not exactly this way at all.
“C’mon, you’re not that busy, Herbert. Haul your lazy ass over here…”
“Uh, think I’d better pass,” I pulled up in a prefrontal dither, “aww, hold on a sec.” Then came one clumsy hurdle over a thigh-high railing.
Back then, seeing a guy like him right now was giving the lye to already tired eyes, but here we collegially were. Sure, judgment day happened to fall amid one of those balmy January storm breaks, about which eastern slope Colorado had always kept so mum. Four to six inches of fresh powder one day, mostly gone by the next, with the next storm gathering to blow over the Front Range: This latest soft snowpack had already melted across much of Boulder Valley, these lower elevations currently being strafed by warm Chinook winds. Shallow drifts dissolved from the foothills and Chautauqua like carbonated foam, barely clinging to the Flatirons’ lower facing and lee shadows for purely seasonal effect.
Such garnishing was no match for the mile-high sun, a cerulean cellophane brilliance that radiated clear over the Continental Divide, generating the very same giddy, fissionable Rocky Mountain energy so exalted in verse and song. By this time, everybody in beautiful Boulder had grown to hate Denver for the unwanted attention—the singer, that is. Tried-and-true Bouldernistas never could much bear the city all along.
Still, not more than an hour or so before, though seemingly aeons ago, I had staggered out of red tile-roofed Ketchum Hall, angling across campus past Old Main, the University of Colorado’s revered brick Victorian pioneer cornerstone, sloshing through snowmelt, dodging busy ground squirrels and white tufts that fell feather light from the bare branches of birch and elms.
My earliest impression of the school was, take the Rockies away, and you had every other State. But before long, I couldn’t have taken to the mountainside campus more if it had been Cambridge with a mountain view. I felt especially so on days this crisp, this clean—mild mid-winter days better spent outdoors than in—best frozen forever in place and time. Reason enough why I went woozy at any hint of budget cuts or faculty ambivalence. Then again, it might have just been the altitude, or that I had stayed too breathlessly long in my car.
“There, sit yourself down, my man…”
“Uh, careful, Paul, you may not want to get too close…my headache might be catching.”
The only real headache of consequence in the late-70s Boulder Valley I had just steered through was rampant, problematical growth. As Denver sprawled up the Route 36 corridor, breathing room between the two cities narrowed to where local space vigilantes had all but circled their welcome wagons at the Turnpike’s summit rim. Precious greenbelts tightened, building permits abated, sewer and gas caps were locked down. Federally funded research centers monitored the atmosphere from their hillside labs, environmental activists blizzarded the valley with hellish impact statements.
A bitter bumper sticker backlash pitted native against nouveau-native against newcomer—the battle cry, ‘Think Globally, Act Neighborly’ giving way to the NIMBYism, ‘Get In, Get Yours—Then Baby, Bar The Door’. Despite everything, still they came, from every direction, settling up and down the glorious Front Range. By now, even a sociologist on the make like myself struggled to keep up with all the changes, much less the turbo coupes and full-dress 4x4s blowing workaday pick-ups and station wagons better than mine off area roads.
For what once was the hippest little college town on the underground/counter-culture trail between Mad City and Berkeley was now a univerCity being Morked and Mindified in network primetime, coast to coast, and trending toward irretrievably, commercially cutesy cool. Boulder’s founders turned over in their Pioneer cemetery graves as modest brick and frame cottages and bungalows burst out all over with skylights, barn wood dormers and rainbow leaded-glass lofts, turning over and over again at mile-high multiples.
With old Boulder thus engaged, most resource-rich newbies pushed new Boulder’s upper limits northward and into wild, mining-claimed, combustible mountain canyons, the rest just spread eastward across the valley, coalescing with Lafayette and Longmont. But nowhere was Boulder’s new frontier more evident than in the dead center heart of town.
“Nonsense, don’t be so schizo…”
“No, I’m serious,” I said, having just coasted beer-bound into an alley spot off Spruce street, in the cool shadow of a simple blue frame house that had been reconfigured into this fave little feminist restaurant with by-reservation-only cuisine. Near enough to Pearl Street, I figured, near enough to Nancy’s dumpster so that no one would pin that ungodly odor on my car. “So, what’re you reading there?”
“Just about the cranking up of protest rallies and demonstrations in Qum, Iran now, for Godsakes. The Middle East, man, that’s important business over there,” Verniere said, dog earing a page corner, closing his Harper’s magazine. “If it weren’t for the oil, they ought to blow the whole of Arabia up.”
“Just keep gas prices down. That’s all that really matters…”
Along with the local cowboys and common townsfolk went such quaint notions as covered wagon coffee shops and musty dry goods stores. So the planning commission and a bandwagon of downtown boosters went high concept: Pearl Street as playground. I had scurried up Boulder’s new kiosked, landscaped, red bricked-over main drag past Aquarian bookstores, goose down outfitters, wood-carving galleries and backcountry bookstores—some four blocks overall, short on everyday mercantile practicality, long on yogurt and Rocky Road. Serious shoppers fled to crossroads centers; everybody else came here to juggle and gawk. I certainly hadn’t come for the shopping today, much less for veging around to talk shop.
“Well, today’s the big day, am I right?” At least that’s what Paul R. Verniere was apparently up to, having emerged from the dark recessed doorway of a hardware provisions store turned watering hole, wine glass in hand.
“How’s that,” I asked stiffly, drawing up to a low wall framing McKyle’s’ brimming sidewalk patio. Verniere had made me uneasy since fall-term registration, when he snapped up the last late-morning Social Stratification Proseminar seat. Even now, standing there all loose and wiry in those tailored twill bush pants and well-travelled leather bombadier jacket, he and every stitch about him begged one question or another: Like how he was a year or so older, yet a little bit baccalaureately behind even me, or why he seemed to be evading or escaping something. Which is perhaps why I thought about this curious fellow grad student rather routinely—Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 8:05.
“You know, the O.K. Corral,” he moved quickly to nail down a front corner table, overlooking a bare honey-locust sapling and some snowy flower crocks. “Orals week and all…”
“Don’t wanna talk about it…” I vaulted the patio wall, albeit against my better judgment, grabbing a seat safely downwind, averting to survey the scene. Certain people said I looked less like a grade grunt than a red-shirted point guard, but you couldn’t tell it by me.
The Pearl Street Mall had been something of a spectacle right from the ceremonial ribbon cut—grand local theatre in an increasingly theatrical town. Shakespearean fencing, storefront rappellers, tribal bellydancers, carpet skiing, flag-bearing fan dancers: today, the show went on, albeit minus the ranchero and harabe hoofers, but numbing just the same. This Friday afternoon, the parade consisted mostly of post-holiday bargain hunters sidestepping student malingerers bagging finals, who drifted around ski helots between free lifts to Eldora or Copper Mountain.
“No really, what dya know?” Verniere beckoned a blonde pony-tailed waitress in an overstretched CU sweatshirt. “Another Grenache, hon, and whatever for my friend here. Just run me the tab…”
“Beer—anything but Coors,” I said, in the wake of her zero-tolerance 501s. Sniffing about for more orders, she was already trolling back under McKyle’s’ logo-emblazoned patio awning to the bar.
“Interest you in grabbing her by the Buffalo horns, hey,” Verniere asked slyly, as he tabled his Mastercard. “Yessir, I could see jumping her bones, latch onto those flotation devices…”
“Yeah well, I’m not really much for devices these days.”
“Anyway, word’s had it in the faculty lounge that today is your orals Armageddon,” Verniere pressed, rays glazing off the chest of his orange Tubes top as he set his wine glass atop a tattered Foreign Affairs Quarterly. “So, what’s the scoop…”
“You’d really like to know, wouldn’t you,” I erupted.
“C’mon, wouldn’t you?”
McKyle’s tucked narrowly between a crystal/fossils bookstore gallery and a brand new Falafel Phil’s, its SRO patio positioned favorably for a spectacular mall-against-the-mountains scenario that made for marathon tabs. After a wintry week of storms, a day this perfect fairly vindicated the whole controversial downtown concept. Strolling folkies even set a melic, placidly uterine subtone to it all.
“OK, you’ve got it.” Hardly becalmed in the least, I grabbed my Lucky Lager from her tray as the waitress swayed by, then licked the head out of my mustache on the down draft. “So Ketchum’s second floor was like a Star Chamber, all right? They’re grilling me on Data Analysis for must have been two hours…”
“Really—like what,” Verniere sipped intently.
“You know, the heavy statistics and stuff,” I vented, although guardedly filtering out various specifics and details. “Multivariate Factor Analysis, Logistic Regression—putting me through the wringer on Correlation Coefficients, Probit Analysis—everything from Pearsonian r to Kendall’s tau. It was brutal, almost like academic mind control or something. And I’m just not that into mind control, you know?”
“Whoa, who is anymore, right? But I’ll wager a sawbuck you did just fine…”
“Are you kidding?” Lucky loosening my tongue, I proceeded to describe how my grand design on academic tenure had been reduced to random purges. Tracking error, warped disk: Frantic cramming and desperate all-nighters had only left me with a weakened beam. The three-chair sociology faculty committee had in turn left me with the impression that they had recently examined far too many substandard deviations from the mean. After a while, it got so I started drifting intellectually toward the lone seminar room window, fixing out on a narrow clip of the snow-veiled Flatirons, all but jailbreaking out of the chamber altogether.
“Know the feeling, but it couldn’t have been all that bad, could it?”
“Who knows? The way Professor Cross was grilling me, clearing his throat at painful intervals…” That would have been Wallford Cross, Ph.D., a slight, Cream-of-Wheat Skinnerian who had levered into a department chairmanship via the National Science Foundation pipeline. “It was gradual torment…he finally suggested I ‘go forth in the world and…distinguish myself’. Can you believe that?”
“I hear you, but what about Terrent?”
“Ol’ Uncle Emlen? Forget about it…” Even Blanchard Professor of Applied Sociology, Emlen Terrent, my advisor and best post-graduate hope, had sniffed and shifted in his rumpled tweed and cords, seemingly far better prepped for a mid-year Champagne luncheon at the faculty club. “The three of them had already snapped shut their folio cases by the time I stood up. They couldn’t get out of the room fast enough…”
“So maybe it was pro forma, probably means you’re a shoe-in,” Verniere said. “Sounds to me like your imagination is working overtime…”
“Oh, yeah? Then when I tripped over their newly endowed chair, Helen Grammersly said, ‘that was distinguish yourself, not extinguish’. All the way out, I’m tryin’ to figure how I’d gone in there with all the answers, and come out with a ton of questions.”
Truth was that very flood of questions haunted me down Ketchum’s hardwood hallways, as I scored each nick and telltale scar from preceding student bodies whose operose methodology yielded a similarly null hypothesis. I’d whistled past a front lobby bulletin board as high on horizons as it was low on real-world opportunities: thumbtacked full of travel here, study there—apply now, not to worry about applying it later. But as Dr. Terrent always said, everything came in time, degrees of effort in positive correlation with degrees of elevation. I chewed on that and half a stale, pocketed Milk-Bone all the way across the quad. “Extinguish, my ass—who the hell does she think she…”
“Ah, well, Grammersly’s doctorate is from Berkeley,” Verniere scoffed, tossing back a goodly portion of his second wine—not exactly Pacino he , but no Jeff Goldblum either. “Everybody’s a smart ass there. I know, was a Cal Bear undergrad myself.”
“I don’t care where she’s from. No snotty skirt’s gonna…wait, you’re from Berzerkely? I thought…”
“Crazier yet, San Francisco, why do you think I came out here?” he toasted. “Things can get real sticky there. And when they do, they stick to you.”
Care for more?
Chapter 2. This conversation continues, questions
are answered, more are raised—
Colorado meets California over the Divide…