University of Pennsylvania was always my fathers Alma Mater, the
stage against which he set the choicest stories of his youth: sock-sliding
races down polished corridors; football games in foulest weather.
If it is true that my father got his degree in chemical engineering
from Penn, it is also more significantly true that he forged true
friendships in campus classes and dormitories. That he had a good
time there, and that he still has the stowed-up wealth of memories.
was my fathers school, the nascency for what became and still remains
a vibrant career in industry, familyhood, good works. By the time
I arrived on campus in the fall of 1978, I saw myself first as the
daughter of an alumnus and second as one obsessed with inconsequential,
slightly purple-tainted pastimes: bad poetry (my own), and all things
F. Scott Fitzgerald. On behalf of what I naively concluded was my
own best interest, my brave if obfuscated future, I relegated my
inchoate scribbles to the shadows beneath my dorm-room bed and signed
upwith legions upon legions of prepossessed pre-medsfor Biology,
Chemistry, and some advanced state of Calculus. Somehow not a single
one of these proved any kinder than theyd been during high school.
freshman year, then, was dominated by huge, intimidating classes,
by vast theater-style environments where one chose ones seat like
one chose ones politics: with absolutely stalwart care. Front-row
seats seemed reserved for teachers pets or subject-matter strugglers.
The netherlands were for the confident of mind, the laid-back, note-passing,
smart-enough-not-to-study types, of which there was an overwhelming
majority. I was a struggler far to the right in the front rows,
until finally (I remember the day), I gave up and slunk down in
the back. In the float of my life that was my freshman year at Penn,
I managed, I strained, I muddled through. It was a big place. I
was a small person. I vaguely understood, as I faced the morning
vats of granola and raisins, that if I could name or declare or
just plain cling to the chain of an academic anchor, Id be safer
than I was, and also happier.
my memory, is a sensory affair: chemically unreliable and inherently
unstable, predisposed toward the irrelevant detail, the out-of-context
truth. The shape of the window in my first dorm room. The emptiness
of Locust Walk after an evening storm. The Quad at dawn on the day
of my first Spring Fling. The fruit vendor on the bookstore side
of the bridge who sold apples large as grapefruits and disappeared
on weekends. I remember Billy Joel in airwave battle with Bruce
Springsteen. I remember catering fancy dinners among mummies in
the University Museum. I remember working the library desk, the
sound of so many returned books as they tumbled into the carts.
But in my mind I have lost much of what I wish Id saved. The names
of characters in books I read. The face of my lab partner. The wise
if somewhat ironic counsel of my freshman year RA.
the many things I cant remember is the month, day, hour, reason,
even, that the book that finally opened a door to me at Penn came
into my possession. The Edge of Objectivity: An Essay in the
History of Scientific Ideas. I have it still. A hefty paperback
that fills the hand. An authorCharles Coulston Gillispiewhose
name screams pedigree. Why did I buy it? Where was I when I did?
How did I think that it would succor or inspire the poetry that
I still hid beneath my bed? As much as I sit and arduously sift
through my memories, I dont find the answers to these questions.
I have to believe that it doesnt much matter, that what is significant
here is this: between my freshman and sophomore year at Penn, Edge
was my tome, my instructor, my provocateur, my friend, my companion
of choice on a quiet South Carolina beach.