The Muralist

Quetzalcoatl Mural at Dartmouth College’s Baker Library

During the four years I was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, I spent many hours studying in the reserve room of Baker Library where, between 1932 and 1934, José Clemente Orozco painted a striking series of murals named “The Epic of American Civilization.” One of the images (above) was of the god Quetzalcoatl (or Plumed Serpent) crossing the Gulf of Mexico to Yucatán. It was largely due to Quetzalcoatl’s yellow beard in Aztec iconography that misled Moctezuma to believe that Hernán Cortés was Quetzalcoatl returned to the Aztecs. We all know how that turned out….

Orozco also did other murals at a dining hall at Dartmouth, but they were removed because they were thought to be Communist, and the Patricians in control at Dartmouth were aghast that the Mexican visitor would abuse their hospitality. (A similar thing happened in Los Angelist, where Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros painted a mural called “América Tropical” that was painted over for similar reasons.)

I love Orozco’s work. At one point, I even journeyed to Guadalajara to see more of his work, such as the image of Miguel Hidalgo below:

Mural by Jose Clemente Orozco featuring Miguel Hidalgo (leader of the Mexican War of Independence), Palacio de Gobierno (Government Palace), in the historic Center of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico

Censorship of a great work of art because one does not believe in the political philosophy espoused by the artist is, to my mind, barbaric. Only in the United States is there a simultaneous attraction/repulsion response to Orozco’s emphatic mural style. Any attempt to paint over his work in Mexico would cause a bloody riot. But then, Mexico does not swing as far to the right as our country does.


The Houses of Poets

The Robert Frost House in Franconia, NH

When traveling, I like to visit the houses in which poets I admire lived. When I was in Chile in 2015, I made a point of visiting all three of Pablo Neruda’s houses: Isla Negra, La Sebastiana, and La Chascona. In Paris, I visited the flat in which Victor Hugo had lived. And, in Franconia, New Hampshire, I visited the farmhouse which Robert Frost occupied beginning in 1915 after he published his collection A Boy’s Will and afterwards as a summer house through most of the 1930s.

Frost remains one of my favorite American poets, along with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. If you look through the same window a great poet has looked through, you begin to understand something about his work.

Mailbox at the Franconia House

Before he died in 1963, I attended a poetry reading by Frost at the newly opened Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College. Frost had attended Dartmouth for a while, but dropped out. He also attended Harvard, but he never graduated college. As old as he was, Frost was in complete command of his mind at the age of 87. And I have been moved by his poetry ever since. I got the feeling that Frost was not the bumbling old poet who read his poem “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961: Hearing him speak, I had a feeling that Frost knew exactly what he was doing, and had no trouble handling an auditorium filled with sharp college undergraduates.


Lawrence Ferlinghetti at Dartmouth

Dartmouth Hall

I was shocked to find that Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born in March 1919) was still alive. Today, I borrowed one of his poetry collections from the L.A. Central Library and remembered with great pleasure running into the poet himself at Dartmouth College around the mid 1960s. He was on campus to read a selection of poems from his collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) and to answer questions.

Never in my life had I seen someone with his uncanny ability to deflect questions. My classmates posed the usual bullshit queries that were typical of people who wanted to look very intellectual but didn’t know what they were talking about. I enjoyed the poems, and I liked all the anecdotes of the beatnik poets he published, such as Allen Ginsburg,  Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. But I kept my mouth shut lest I be exposed like so many of my classmates were.

Ferlinghetti’s Poetry Collection

I was pleasantly surprised to find that A Coney Island of the Mind is the best-selling poetry collection ever published in the United States, having sold in excess of a million copies.

Five Epiphanies

Ushuaia from the Air

It was James Joyce who, in Stephen Hero and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, coined the term epiphanies to refer to moments of clarity and sudden recognition of another perspective. There were several points in my life in which I had a shock of recognition and that I looked back on as pivotal points in my development as a person. In this post, I recognize five such epiphanies that occurred in my life:

Dartmouth College 1962

It was a bad year. It looked as if my parents were headed for divorce, and rare was the day when there were no mutual recriminations. I was delighted that I was accepted at Dartmouth. When, during the summer, my future roommate’s parents drove me up to the campus, I fell in love with the place, deciding that here was a place I could heal.

Cleveland 1966

I was released from Fairview General Hospital after brain surgery to remove a pituitary tumor. As I was sitting as a passenger in our family automobile, I saw the people in the street almost as angelic beings. It was only after the operation that I was told how serious the operation was; and that my life was despaired of. I thought momentarily of Miranda’s lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Oh, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in ’t!
Uxmal 1975
On my first trip outside the United States, I arranged with Turistica Yucateca to have a driver take me to the Maya ruins at Uxmal in the Puuc Hills. As his car pulled up to the magnificent Templo del Adivino, he made a sign of the cross. I felt that I was on holy ground.
Death Valley 1979
It was my first camping trip and my first real introduction to the desert. We were at Furnace Creek, with desolation all around us. Just after sunrise, birds of every variety flocked to the campground and woke us up.
Ushuaia 2006
It was my first trip to South America. As our plane descended to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, only 600 miles from Antarctica, I felt a shiver of excitement. Never mind that I was to break my shoulder in a blizzard within a few days, Ushuaia has always stood for a kind of subarctic wilderness. I returned in 2011 with Martine and would gladly return again.


Discovering the Long Scroll

Excerpt from the Long Scroll of Sesshū Tōyō

For the first time in my life, I away away from home, alone. I was seventeen years old when I found myself at Dartmouth College. The only person I knew from before was Frank Opaskar, with whom I had gone to Chanel High School in Bedford, Ohio. But I quickly found myself becoming estranged from Frank because of his anxiety about his complexion. I had the top bunk in our dorm room, and Frank insisted in smearing himself with Noxzema. Every night, I was wafted into sleep by the medicated stench of his facial preparation.

Naturally, I was desperate to lift my mind from the humdrum life of study and Noxzema. Fortunately, I found several ways of escape. One of them was art….

In my first year at Dartmouth, the Hopkins Center for the Arts opened. One of the first shows in the art gallery was of the Long Landscape Scroll by Sesshū Tōyō (1420-1506), a Zen Buddhist master whose art work made me feel at home. I don’t know why: I had had no previous exposure in my Catholic education to Zen ink and wash paintings of the Muromachi school.

But what I saw was magical. It was a landscape of mists and rocks and water in which pilgrims were trekking from one place to another. I loved it at once. Did I see a sudden paradigm of my own life, wrenched from a close Hungarian family into the wide world? I followed the scroll from left to right—not just once, but many times in numerous visits while the exhibit lasted.

If you want to see what I saw, you can see an image by clicking here. Scroll about a third of the way down and scroll slowly to the right. The image doesn’t allow you to get close, but you get the general idea. I bought a copy of the scroll from Tuttle, the Japanese-American publishing house then located in nearby Rutland, Vermont.

You can say it was Sesshū Tōyō  who introduced me to Zen Buddhism. It was a splendid introduction.

Bad Alumnus

Omigosh, Is It Time for My 50th Reunion Already?

Omigosh, Is It Time for My 50th Reunion Already?

On June 3, 1966, I graduated with an A.B. from Dartmouth College. What’s an A.B, you may ask? Well, as my diploma is entirely in Latin, it stands for Artium Baccalaurei, or Bachelor of Arts.

Although I am besieged with mail from the college, asking for money, participation in local and national alumni events (such as my 50th Reunion), and deluxe trips around the world with other alums. Will I participate? Uh, no. That despite the fact that I was awarded a four-year alumni scholarship, for which I am grateful—but not in any material way.

What bothers me is that none of the people I knew and liked at Dartmouth are active with the alumni. Instead, it’s all the same gladhander crew that was active in the fraternity system (which I loathed), student government (for which I was not popular enough), and/or sports (for which I didn’t qualify). I went through four years of Dartmouth with a brain tumor, which was not operated on until September 1966. Until then, I looked like an extraordinarily pale and sickly middle school or high school student.

It’s not that I didn’t make friends easily. My oldest friend was one of my classmates who now lives only 25 miles from me in San Pedro. There are others, but they were all like me in one way or another—and none saw fit to become active with the alums.

Somehow I managed to survive the college years, and even enjoyed them despite a level of pain that would sink me into my grave today. Those frontal headaches were almost constant, the result of a pituitary tumor pressing against my optic nerve. Today I am a different person altogether.

The one debt I feel I owe Dartmouth is actually to the Catholic Student Center there. When I was lying near death at Fairview General Hospital in Cleveland, my parents were shocked to find that my student insurance had just expired. They told Monsignor William Nolan of the Center to pray for me, which he did—and more. He went to bat for me and bullyragged the insurance company into covering me. Imagine that happening today!

Monsignor Nolan has since gone to join his ancestors, but I still owe him. And he gets paid in full before anyone else at Dartmouth gets dime one from me.

Still a Good Investment?

University Buildings at UCLA

University Buildings at UCLA

Over the years since I graduated from college, I’ve seen the cost of a university education climb to stratospheric levels. At the same time, I’ve seen massive unemployment among college graduates, sometimes even those with a postgraduate education. It forces me to think what I would do different if I had a couple of teenaged children to put through school (though in fact I have no children). Would I still at this date recommend that children go to college to improve their chances for the future?

Part of the problem is symbolized by that “One Way” sign in the above photo. It used to be that the object was to get everyone into college: It was a bargain back then. Even if the kids washed out within the first quarter or two, the thinking was that they were given the opportunity.

I went to an Ivy League college for four years—Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire—whose tuition back in the years 1962-66 was only $1,500 a year. With the dollar as it is today, that would be somewhere between $9,000 (using the CPI) to $27,200 (using the relative share of GDP) in 2012, the most recent year for which this calculation is available. For the academic year 2013-2014, Dartmouth’s tuition is now $45,445. The question I ask is this: Is a Dartmouth education worth twice as much as when I went to school? I think not. It’s still very good, but not at two to five times the cost.

Other related costs have also been skyrocketing. I am particularly incensed by textbooks that run to several hundreds of dollars each. I remember paying something under a hundred dollars for all the textbooks for an entire quarter. Admittedly, textbooks can be gorgeously produced with nice bindings and four-color illustrations, but is that always necessary? I can see where these expensive productions will eventually be replaced by software programs, but even then the temptation will be to charge more than they are worth, even after the production costs for multiple copies have plummeted.

So, what to do? There isn’t much chance that youth between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one will find jobs that at the same time do not require a college education, yet provide a reasonable opportunity for advancement. How does one advance after a job flipping hamburgers or selling tee shirts? A college degree will help, even though it has been devalued over the years. It costs twice as much in real dollars, yet probably isn’t as good as it was when my generation was on campus.

I still urge kids whose intellects are sharp to go to college whenever they can. It doesn’t have to be the best college, but it should be a decent one (and I don’t mean something like the University of Phoenix and its imitators). To get a good job after graduation, some thought has to be put into a good choice of a major. Perhaps it would help to have some kind of certification in certain subjects attesting to a student’s proficiency in, say, writing or mathematics. If instituted, it may even replace the whole notion of a major; and it may help grads with multiple certifications to have different options to choose from when looking for a job.

In 1966, I graduated with a major in English. Then I went on for two years at UCLA in motion picture history and criticism, stopping short of getting my M.A. for mostly political reasons. (The instructor I hated most got himself appointed to head up my thesis committee, upon which I switched over into computer software.) It was a good thing that I had taught myself how to become conversant with computers at Dartmouth, where every student was allowed free time on the Dartmouth Time-Sharing System, the nation’s first. That kind of flexibility to switch among career alternatives is becoming more important than ever.



Tarnmoor’s ABCs: Dartmouth College

Dartmouth Hall

Dartmouth Hall

It was a beautiful place to spend four years, even if I had never really been more than a few miles away from home by myself before then. I went from being a valedictorian who had won all the non-sports-related honors at Chanel High School to one of hundreds of similar people from all around the country, including those famous prep schools that have sprouted up over all of New England.

At that time, Dartmouth College was isolated by the fact that the Interstate Highway system had not yet made its way into New Hampshire and Vermont. Today, Hanover, New Hampshire, is less than two hours from Boston via I-89. During the months of January and February, we were at times cut off from all supplies until the snow plows could cut a channel for cars and trucks. All four years, I stayed in Middle Wigwam Hall, which was later renamed to McLane Hall. My dorm stood a mile from the center of campus. To get to class, I had to trudge past the eerie old Hanover cemetery, with its tombs dating back to the Eighteenth Century, often on a sidewalk that had obligingly turned into a sheet of ice.

During those years, I suffered frequently from severe frontal headaches, which were the result of a pituitary tumor (chromophobe adenoma) pressing on my optic nerve. The attacks occurred on 50% of all days, with the “penumbra” of the headache beginning around 11 am and reaching a crescendo around midnight. That’s why I did most of my homework before midnight and 3 am. It was not until after I graduated that I was properly diagnosed: Until then, doctors did not know what to think—especially since MRIs and CT Scans had not yet been invented.

Pain and all, I loved Dartmouth. The quality of the instructors was, for the most part, incredibly high. Particularly in the English department, I had a succession of professors I will never forget: men like Chauncey Loomis, Peter Bien, and Thomas Vance.

At first, I hoped to become an English professor, until the movies turned by head. The Dartmouth Film Society screened great films, including a huge year-round Alfred Hitchcock festival. Plus I made the acquaintance of Arthur L. Mayer, the former “Merchant of Menace” from New York’s Rialto Theater and the author of Merely Colossal (1953). It was while at Dartmouth that I decided to go to graduate school in film history and criticism at UCLA—and that’s how I wound up in La La Land.

Dartmouth College had been founded as a missionary school for Indians in 1769 under the patronage of the Earl of Dartmouth. In 1819, the school made legal history when Daniel Webster argued before the Supreme Court in Trustees of Dartmouth College vs. Woodward, better known as the Dartmouth College Case. President Franklin “Handsome Frank” Pierce graduated from there and went on to become one of the most mediocre presidents in U.S. history.

I will leave you with the official seal of Dartmouth:

“A Voice Crying in the Desert”

“A Voice Crying in the Desert”

The motto was most appropriate considering the school’s winter isolation.