Monday, January 9, 2017

Playing Dead

Now that I work on a college campus, memories of my own time in college are bubbling up in surprising ways. What follows, is a uniquely bizarre set of circumstances that maybe only ever could have occurred on the St. Lawrence University campus in the early 2000s. Or perhaps it really could and does happen everywhere. Some of this may not be true, or accurate, but it is as close as I can recall, and that seems good enough to at least explore.

I am not, actually, sure how the tiff between the Greenhouse and the Outing Club started. There was always, when I was there, a certain amount of good-natured animosity—the Greenhouse was the environmental action themed house, and the Outing Club was the outdoor adventure themed house. To anyone not in those worlds, it would seem that the houses would have gotten merrily along, traipsing about the woods and waters on skis and in kayaks and discussing the literal common ground.

However, to people familiar with the nuanced tribalism of the situation, it should be immediately obvious that—as very young fairly homogenous twenty-somethings—we were all a little hungrier than average bear to define ourselves as being one thing or another. To borrow from the budding sociologists in our neighboring theme cottages of the Women’s Resource Center and the Pink Triangle, we “otherized” the shit out of each other, in order to better define ourselves.

Roughly, at the Greenhouse, we ate communal, vegetarian meals and got funding from the school to put in a compost bin. We hosted craft nights, board game parties, and the Student Activists for Global Equity regularly met in the living room to strategize about protesting the IMF, WTO and World Bank. In the Harry Potter scheme of things, this was definitely a cozy little home of Hufflepuffs. (It should be noted that I loved living there, that after three years of living in dorms and other, louder, theme houses, the Greenhouse felt like where I should have always been. I loved it, and the people I lived with were some of the best.)

At the Outing Club, they organized getting a St. Lawrence student on top of every 4,000 footer in the Adirondacks one weekend every year. One of their members shot a deer and hung it to drain in the front yard. They had barbeques, much better parties, and a slack-line. They made t-shirts for the Peak Weekend celebrating that they were going to, I believe the phrasing was, “penetrate Mother Nature.” I believe that, perhaps, some of alum Viggo Morentson’s cool brutality and stoic capabilities in the woods as Aragorn may have been modeled on the Outing Club.

At first, there was a little good-natured carping about how one house was a bunch of softie Loraxes, and one house was a bunch of jocks in Patagonia.

I’m not sure when the food throwing started, but it did. Or maybe the Greenhouse stole all the Outing Club’s silverware—we certainly talked about that, but I can’t remember ever going in there in active prank mode? I don’t like to think that the Greenhouse were merely objects that were acted upon rather than taking direct action towards an increasingly antagonistic force, but I really can’t think of anything that I—or anyone, really—could do where an appropriate reaction is to squeeze ketchup and mustard onto the side of the house.

Which people—I’m not saying exactly who, because I don’t remember—did, to the Greenhouse. That was just a minor inconvenience, and not really even for us who lived there because we were college kids and didn’t have to clean our own houses. I remember the cleaning lady telling me how hard it was to get the streaks of condiments off the window screens, and I didn’t have any idea of what to say, or how to explain, and just feeling like a privileged asshole.

Once condiments were passé, the game evolved. The dining hall had a soft-serve ice cream machine. The joke, apparently, was to make a big ice cream cone—one of the few foods allowed out of the dining hall, if you weren’t wearing cargo pants and a hoodie—and then walk back to the Outing Club, which meant passing the Greenhouse. Then, at the opportune moment, the ice cream cone was hucked at the house, and it was considered a real win if it stuck.

Again, dried sticky ice cream is more difficult to get off the side of a building than you might think. I had a big bay window on the second story, just over the porch roof, which made a better than average target.

We, in the Greenhouse, did think of retaliating. We were pissed. I despise the stereotype of a mousy, passive, and humorless environmentalist, and that certainly held me back from having the sort of shrill and hysterical screaming fit with the Outing Club, where friends of mine lived. We tried being just coolly pissed, trying to do Michelle Obama’s “they go low, we go high” before she made it cool. We knew that any major reaction would make it worse—there is a particular demoralizing trap of having your legitimate concerns laughed at. “What’s wrong? It’s just a joke.” is deceptively strong statement. We didn’t want to throw food, because we were concerned about food waste, and we had no authority to get them to come over and clean up after the one-sided food fight. And so we just sat tight, occasionally trying to chase Outing Club people down, from the dining hall, and steal the ice cream cones before the throwing.

But then we entered the animal kingdom.

The Outing Club, very generously, hosted a Thanksgiving Dinner every year before Thanksgiving break. The whole campus was invited, there was an enormous amount of food, any oven that could hold a turkey was taken, very pleasantly, by eminent domain the day of the feast.

Including the Greenhouse’s. Which was fine—just because we didn’t eat meat at our nightly suppers, didn’t mean that we all abhorred animal flesh or needed our kitchen to remain pristine. I tried to offer a campus program of eating locally made beef jerky at the house, and it only fell apart because I lost steam, not because it was meat.

So, there was the turkey, roasting away in the oven. And then there was the dinner, hosted at a house in the woods that the school owned.

And then, in the very late or early hours of the night, a terrific wet THUMP shook the front door of the Greenhouse.

It was, of course, a turkey carcass.

We at the Greenhouse chased them off. I vaguely remember standing on the sidewalk throwing pieces of turkey from my welcome mat, after people I knew well who ran off down the street, and then I suppose, we put the carcass in the garbage and went back to bed.

A quick survey of college friends on Facebook informs me that there were, at various other points that year: a dead squirrel, a dead raccoon in the recycling bins off the kitchen, and my sister Emily remembers her and I talking to a young gentleman from the Outing Club who sauntered up to the porch one evening with a large dead rodent with a rope around it’s neck, and swinging it like an Olympic hammer throw. One thing I remember about the whole saga, in not wanting to exacerbate the situation, I was disturbingly Stockholmed into thinking that this was some sort of joke, that if I didn’t laugh about it, with the animal carcass hurlers and the food wasters and the thieves of the cleaning staffs’ time, then I was a bad sport.

So, according to my sister, I discussed—in the agreeable tones of people who are both in on the joke, I imagine—what he might be doing. He stood on the sidewalk, while my sister and I sat on the porch swing, grinned his chiseled L.L. Bean model face off and twirled something furry, heavy and dead over his shoulder, replied that he was “doing oh, nuthin’, just out for a walk,” obviously—and off he went, with his little dead companion slung over his shoulder.

If logic applies in this situation, then it was later that same night that I was lying in my bed, the head of which was against the outside front wall of the house, and heard another heavy wet THWACK against the building, and the hooting laughter of people I knew running away.

In the morning, when it was light, I could see that it was a fisher cat—a large marten-weasel type critter, with a leash of twine around it’s neck, lying in a perfect “C” shape on the porch roof, just out of reach.

It was big and dead and cute and suddenly, this wasn’t at all funny more and I didn’t want to play along and I didn’t want to have to climb out on the roof to prevent an animal from rotting next to my window and I didn’t want the cleaning staff to have to do more work because some people were stupid and some people were permissively spineless.

And so, as I remember it, I asked the largest man who lived in the Greenhouse to go with me to Outing Club, where we woke up the kid I knew had hurled the fisher, and in angry calm—although bordering on shrill and no longer giving a shit about being a hysterical lady environmentalist—voices, told him he needed to get a ladder, get rid of it, and this all needed to stop.

And, with the sort of sober light of morning clarity where a lot of important college learning actually happens, he did come retrieve the carcass. I remember a sort of awkward apology as both he and I knew, finally, that this was a fucking weird thing to have happened, to have been normalized.

This isn’t the sort of major issue that college campuses get worked up about. I’d love for rape and binge drinking and mental health to be taken care of so that someone in the administration would tell students to stop being asshats and to stop throwing dead rodents and dinner-fowl at each other’s homes, but we’re not there yet. Maybe we don’t ever get there and this is the sort of not-good, not-clean, “toxic masculinity driven” fun that happens. It’s bad choices and drinking the Koolaid and not taking a moment to see what you’re actually doing…and in the context of a certain type of rich, private, WASPy college, it is totally explicable, while totally dumb.

 I know that working for me in the Sustainability Office is never going to be the biggest thing going on in my students lives. I was thinking about the challenges a student could face in getting their dorm to sort the recycling properly, and then about all the tiny dramas of daily life at college, and then bam, like a dead marten landing on the roof, I was back to thinking about this. It won’t be ketchup and squirrels, but odds are, something similarly wrong and asinine is going to come up among my new students.

In the dark corner of my soul that finds this grotesquely funny in the abstract hindsight, I hope it does. Although, I’ll make the perpetrators clean up the evidence, because that is what seems most egregious to me now. 

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