Straddling the Fence

Pretty much everyone’s college years are a cusp, an ontological R&D period of flux during which one is moving between immaturity and maturity, between the certainties of childhood and the settledness (or inertia) of adulthood, between furtive sex hidden from one’s parents and furtive sex hidden from one’s children.

But our years at college look particularly cusp-like to me.

My strongest memory of the first week at Harvard is using my pre-med roommate’s digital calculator—it was, miraculously, no bigger than a telephone, and none of us had ever seen one; then, during our junior and senior years, Apple and Microsoft were founded, and in our 20s we were all using PCs.

Freshman year, most of my friends were proud users of soft drugs. That fall I decided to comp for the Lampoon as the result of a chance encounter with a celebrated Lampoon genius mid-acid-trip—his, not mine. And that winter, a roommate and I managed to buy a one-pound slab of hashish, a gorgeous and remarkable object I still recall vividly.

But in the summer of 1974, I cut my shoulder-length hair short, for no reason except that long hair suddenly seemed symbolically pointless, and by junior year, almost no one I knew was taking a lot of drugs.


The last great Vietnam demonstration happened, I’m pretty sure, in the fall of 1973—my one and only chance to chant anti-American slogans in a huge mob marching down Commonwealth Avenue. Given that Congress had voted to stop all bombing in Indochina three months earlier, it felt like nostalgic playacting even at the time, a wishful last-ditch attempt to live the glamorous New Left undergraduate life of our formed-in-the-60s adolescent imaginations.

When I got on the Lampoon in 1972, it was in no sense a pre-professional hatchery; when I left in 1976, the National Lampoon was a huge success, Saturday Night Live had been on the air for a year, and the Lampoon hegemony over American television comedy had begun.

When we entered Harvard, there were no women lawyers; when we graduated, it was already clear that one day soon, all lawyers would be women.

And so on.

As it turned out, all that cusp-ness provided a useful foretaste of the 90s and early 00s, which have been in so many ways (technologically, economically, culturally) a time of extreme flux. At an impressionable age we became accustomed to being both one thing and its seeming opposite (analog and digital, bohemian and bourgeois, old and youngish), which was—I think—a good thing.

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