Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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 Chapter 13

A Conversation

The tea room, a little frilly and somewhat given to Viennese tortes, was only a block up Brattle Street from Harvard Square. Perhaps because it was frequented by ladies like Mary Ellen, students almost never went there. Tom thought, however, that it might be the best place to take Sharon after their perfectly legal afternoon visit to K- Entry. Sharon did look relaxed as she leaned back in her chair, sipped her Lap-sang-sou-chong, and asked,

"What are your purposes in life?"

"I hardly know."

"I ask partly because it's hard to imagine the motivation for the pattern of activity that prevails in K-Entry, and partly because I'm often asked that myself."

"I doubt that anyone in K-Entry could explain how we got where we are. What do you say when you're questioned?"

"I sometimes say that I want to study philosophy. You could say that, too."

"Yes, but I'd hardly be happy or satisfied if I did philosophy and nothing else."

"Would anyone?"

"One or two of the graduate students I know might come pretty close to that."

"But you're not like that. I was impressed with that wrestling match you had."

Tom and Peter had a convention that either could jump on the other without warning and precipitate a wrestling match. Peter, at six one and one ninety five, was much heavier, but Tom had more technique, and, in certain areas, equal strength. Peter, not knowing that Tom had a girl in the house, had jumped on him. Sharon, hearing the commotion and rushing up, had seen Tom pin Peter. He now said,

"Peter sometimes wins, but his moods vary a lot, and he wasn't as competitive today as he often is."

"Still, he looks very strong and athletic. You did well."

"That sort of thing is important to me."

"Would you still quit college to become a baseball player if you had the chance?"

"Until just now I would have said yes."

"I hope I'm not a party to destroying your hopes."

"It's been a while since anyone directly questioned that one. I suppose it is just a fantasy."

"I nevertheless have the feeling that sports are as important as anything in your life plan."

"I've never doubted that. But I don't have a philosophically generated grand sceme of things into which everything fits. My various activities don't bear any relation to one another. What about you?"

"Well, women are supposed to get married and have children. I'm not so sure about that. I do like sports, more than you might guess, and I'm also keen on staying sane and stable enough to make it on my own outside an institution. And then there's the matter of making a living. I'm sure there isn't any single grand principle which makes sense of all that."

"So we just bumble along."

"I think most people do."

"You know, it would be nice if you and Ann could both join K- Entry. There are a couple of empty single rooms up on the third floor, and we could work out something for the bathroom."

"Wow, that's a surprise! I think I'd like to. How long would it take Harvard to catch on and throw us out?"

"I'm not sure. We sneak Peter's girl friends in and out all the time. There really doesn't seem to be anyone detailed to patrol for such things. I imagine we could go a month before the rumors got to the wrong people. There probably would be unpleasantness at the end."

"So many nice ideas seem not quite feasible."

"Apart from your own improving presence, Ann might lend us some stability."

"She might also put a stop to those skirmishing things you do on the parkway before someone gets run over."

"There are housemothers at some men's colleges, but we don't have that system. I guess they also have to be older and less attractive than Ann."

"You know, I'm beginning to discover something about your values and goals. You bring almost everything back to K-Entry sooner or later."

"We're known for that. We seem to be the only really small housing unit in the whole university, and it breeds a certain sense of community.

"You put a great deal of effort into keeping your little community together."

"Do you think I'm a home-town booster?"

"Well, K-Entry is obviously your home town, and several people in it seem to be dependent on you."


"Eric, of course. He does wonderfully well, but he knows he can count on you if he gets sicker."

Tom nodded and Sharon continued,

"Jimmy follows you everywhere you go."

"He was probably following you. He always follows pretty girls."

"Thank you, but I don't think so. And then, there's the boy who looks rather disturbed. Is that Kent?"

"Yes. You could tell that easily?"

"I'm in a place full of people who've gone off the rails in some direction to some degree. You get so you can tell."

"The first time I visited your place, I had no idea who was a patient and who was a visitor. I still don't, for that matter."

"A lot of it comes down to mannerisms, facial expressions, and various kinds of tics. I have some myself."

Sharon began producing some jerks and shakes, culminating in a "whole body tic" that shook the table. Tom, laughing, admitted that Kent did, indeed, show signs of nervousness. He added,

"My mother's afraid that I'll end up taking care of him."

"I bet she doesn't know that you're seeing a girl in a mental institution."

"She does worry that I might marry an intense Jewish intellectual."

"She may not realize that plain old Anglo-Saxon craziness can beat Jewish paranoia any day."

"You may be Anglo-Saxon, but you aren't crazy."

"Perhaps not. But she may think that you're drawn to people who need help. If she knew about me, that'd confirm her suspicion."

"I'm drawn to interesting people. It's just an accident that Eric may need help, and Jimmy's only problem is being young. Your situation is almost as accidental as Eric's."

"We know that the concept of an accident won't bear much examination, don't we?"

"Sure, but I don't let philosophy invade my private life. However, Mary Ellen has met Kent, and reacted much as you did. Peter also has doubts about his mental health, and even Eric may."

"That sounds pretty conclusive."

"Yeah. The thing is that Kent was fine when I first met him two years ago. At least, he seemed fine to me. He has lots of ideas, most of them unconventional, and some of them quite good. He may even be right that anthropologists have an Achilles heel that they refuse to recognize."

Sharon asked about that, and seemed impressed by Tom's explanation. He then added,

"I probably didn't tell you that Kent's father is a billionaire."

"My God! No wonder he isn't normal. You couldn't be if you're a billionaire. And I don't mean that just in the trivial sense. It would have to distort everything."

"Yes. Mary Ellen didn't quite say it, but she obviously thinks that Kent's hopeless. She's also afraid he'll drag down the people around him, me in particular."

"Have you always called your mother by her first name?"

"For a long time. I guess it seemed the grown-up thing to do. Anyhow, she's not exactly an authority figure."

"But she wants to keep you from blundering into various pit- falls that she sees in the road ahead?"


Just then, there was a disturbance as a woman sitting nearby shrieked. Sharon reacted, almost knocking over the table, but it turned out that the woman was only greeting a friend entering the tea room. As Sharon recovered herself apologetically, Tom remarked quietly,

"That must be a pretty intense friendship."

"It's just an affectation. Women like that will cut each other's throats if it turns out to be advantageous."

"Isn't there any element of sincerity at all?"

"Maybe some. But they have to exaggerate things to keep them going."

"That may be what we do in K-Entry. Skirmishing might be our version of shrieking at each other in tea rooms."

Sharon considered briefly and replied,

"I suppose it's a question of how much you really do like one another."

"Peter once pointed out to me that we have pairs of people who don't much like each other. He didn't say it, but even he and I don't really like each other. So it'll all break up. A few of us will continue to be friends, but that'll be it."

"Will you then find a new community, or just become an individualist?"

"I'm not sure. Of course, most people marry and have children, and their family then becomes their immediate community. However, I want to play sports and do philosophy. There are very few families in which the children can participate in real sports, much less philosophy. Everything would have to be scaled down to their level, and that doesn't sound like much fun."

That seemed to strike a chord with Sharon, who nodded enough to shake the halo of her frizzed hair and replied,

"There are lots of women who spend five or more years talking baby talk to their children. That must be a mind deadening reverse education. I bet they suffer permanently from it."

"I hadn't thought about that. If you do return spiritually to kindergarten with your children, it might take a while to get back."

"That may be what's wrong with my mother. She and her friends put a brave front on it and go to monthly lectures on art history. But it's too little too late."

"If marrying and having a family is a dead end, the question remains whether there's room for any other sort of community."

"I suppose you might find something a little like K-Entry, except composed of people who really do like each other."

"I think I'm growing out of that illusion. I guess I thought that everyone in K-Entry would go all out for everyone else until Peter made his point. Now, it seems that any sort of commune would generate its internal tensions and split up."

"Sure. In the last analysis, we're all on our own. But friendship can be genuine."

"Yes. K-Entry seemed originally to be built on friendship, but some of it was genuine and some contrived. The trouble is that, if we stopped throwing water balloons and things like that, we'd break apart now. And we have almost two years to go. There's a common consensus that we need our community for the forseeable future."

"You may well need it. Like it or not, I need the Allwyn Institute, my little community. I hope not for too long, but I need it now."

"What will take its place when you leave?"

"I'll need somehow to keep seeing Ann. I just have to think of something to give her in return."

"I bet she'll want to keep seeing you just for yourself."

"She has other duties, and an unending string of patients. She couldn't possibly keep up with all of them, and I don't think I'm that special."

Before Tom could reply, Sharon said,

"I'm not fishing for a compliment. No doubt I'm special in the sense of being strange and bizarre, but I need to make it fun and relaxing for her to be with me."

"I think she enjoyed herself at the ice cream parlor, at least apart from losing her cookies."

"Well, that's it. If you and Eric are there too, it'll be fun for her."

"I'll be happy to participate, and I know Eric will."

Bill Todd -- A Harvard Story
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