Breaking Point

merrill hall - phillips exeter academy

And that was it. They let me go back to my dorm room for toiletries and a book or something. I could see from Pete and Ed’s faces that they were going to escape our confinement in the infirmary. They asked me to go and all, but I was too freaked out. I mean, my life was over. I don’t know how I was going to tell my mom. My damn dad would be glad I was getting out of this New England prep school, he’d be all for it. He was trying to get me to come live with him and his new boozy wife. Offering me a car and my own private entrance.

He’d just built this amazing house, a castle really, on top of this mountain, looking across Lake Austin at the big city, the state capital, and the lights and all. It was a crazy house. Zero-edge pool and some famous sculpture or something, overlooking the view. A seagull or something. A famous painter who also did these crazy expensive bronze sculptures. I liked his paintings better. Especially when he was in his “space” phase. These really dense and cool space paintings. I could really dig into those when I was looking at them. It was like they were 3D or something. But, I think it was just my mind.

In my dorm room I wanted to just jump the hell out of the 3rd story window. But it probably wouldn’t have killed me. Nobody wanted to be like that sad sack in A Separate Piece or anything. That was not cool. The room still smelled of pot, actually. I could see why Mrs. Tennis would’ve freaked out. I mean, this was like 30 minutes later and it smelled like a damn hooka lounge. For real. I wasn’t too proud of myself. It had been a cool moment. A perfect moment, really.

I like to point out perfect moments. That’s one of my things. If you stop and smell the roses, so to speak, and mention to everyone with you, “Let’s take a moment to enjoy this very experience we’re having.” I was a bit crazy like that. Always leading my friends on wild-ass adventures. It was my thing.

“Let’s pretend we’re fish in a small aquarium. The trees are really plants. And the sky is really just the surface of the aquarium. And that bright light, that’s not the moon, that’s the sun.” There were about five of us. We were wandering in the woods near the dorm, stoned as hell. And we went off jumping through the trails just off from the boys dorm. Wonderleaping. I think good old Walt Whitman came up with that word. He was always coining words and ideas and stuff.

Do you know Walt Whitman wrote like 100 versions of Song of Myself? I guess the book was always called Leaves of Grass. Anyway, it was my favorite book, my favorite poem, my favorite writer of all time. I called him Walt. Just like Joyce, or Kerouac. You just needed a single word, name, and these guys were like the monsters of my favorite innovation in writing. I think Joyce was the real instigator. Well, WW was not really a stream-of-consciousness writer. He was more of an experimental writer. He was experimenting over and over with this same long-ass poem, that didn’t rhyme or anything.

But the part old Walt went crazy on, was the punctuation. It’s hard to see how cool it was without reading it. I’ve read like seven of the one-hundred versions of Song of Myself. And here’s one of the cooler things I remember. All of this poem is really just like a rambling of ideas and words and stuff, all jumbled together with ellipses. “…” So, in like one of his early drafts of the poem, he used dots. Just like that. To mean “on and on” or “etcetera.” He’s rambling along with all these phrases, words, ideas, and lots and lots of ellipses. And then, in one of his manuscripts for the poem, he changed the elliptical device to colons. It might seem like a little thing now, because of ee. cummings and all, but it was way ahead of its time. Whitman, or Walt, was really sneaking a lot of stuff in the poem that didn’t make sense. Well, it started to make sense after you’d read the entire thing. You had to get all the way to the end, and this thing, a poem – mind you, is about 50 pages long. A poem. And some of the sentences, or stanzas, or lines, never stopped. They’d go on for pages and pages with only these punctuation “devices” to break up the run-on sentences. You didn’t read Walt when you are learning to read or write because he didn’t obey any of the rules. I think he broke them just to be breaking them. Anyway, so this version of the “song” just felt different with the colons. Let me give you and example, off the top of my head. I’ve memorized some of the epic lines.

I’m’ I contradict myself… I contradict myself… I am large… I contain multitudes. – w whitmann

But when he wrote it this other time, it looked like this.

I’m’ I contradict myself:::I contradict myself:::I am large:::I contain multitudes. – w whitmann

Can you see it? I don’t know why my kid brain got such a kick out of the colon version of this famous and well-known classic poem. It was something about them. Like a graphic design thing. I imagined they were tunnels that led from the first phrase to the connecting phrase. Like the entire poem was one big pipe, tube, tunnel, of words and images and ideas. And old Walt’s doubting himself and all. Seriously, I’ve read this thing a ton. My mom got me a version of the book that had about four of the variations.

He kept publishing this book and song over and over. He really was the first self-publishing and self-promoting genius. After one of the early versions came out, Walt sent a copy to Thoreau. Or was it Emmerson? Anyway, it was one of these transcendentalists. And when Thoreau wrote him a letter back, telling him he liked the book, Walt up and published a version using that email as a forward, praising his work. Dope move, but not all that ethical. I hear Thoreau was pissed.

Walt kept publishing that damn book over and over again. He never stopped. And back in those days, EACH TIME, the books would have to be typeset again. That’s when he played with the ellipse and added or removed parts of the “song.” Anyway, how did I get off on this story?

I’d love to tell you that I took Song of Myself or On the Road or some other famous tome to bide my time while incarcerated in the school infirmary, but I don’t remember much of anything. Pete and Ed were packing for a night in the woods. They walked us over in a group. Old Thomspon told us not to speak. They wanted to keep us separated so we couldn’t get our story fixed up. And they wanted us in the infirmary so we wouldn’t off ourselves since we’d now fkd up our lives beyond recognition. FUBAR.

And sure enough, after a meager meal in our separate rooms, they shut us in our rooms and said not to come out until morning. Then the security guard was brought on to watch the hall. But we were the only people on this floor. So he was really just babysitting. Pete and Ed were gone within 15 minutes of lights out. They dropped by my room together to convince me to go with them. I’d already screwed up enough, so I said no. “What can they do to us, man? We’re already deadmen.”

And then they were off, heading down the hall away from the guard. We never got to talk again. In the morning they were discovered to have escaped while I was getting dressed. The head nurse, Mrs. Calipa, was furious. She made it sound like I was implicated in their violation for not rushing to the guard and telling him.

“I fell asleep after dinner. I didn’t hear anything.”

“Well, those boys are in even more trouble.”

“Fat chance,” I said, under my breath.

“What did you say, young man?”


“You keep it clean. Don’t go down with those losers.”

I was a freshman. Pete was a junior and Ed, well, he was a tragic story, actually. He was a graduating senior. I heard later that his acceptance to Dartmouth was rescinded. And we had literally been busted because of one of my dumbass ideas.

It was a Saturday afternoon in May. All of our friends were out smoking dope in the woods and running amok like normal teenagers in the 80s. I had the idea of putting on a rock’n’roll concert in my dorm room for my two friends. I didn’t really know how to play guitar, yet, but I had one and that was a start. So, we got super high and put on 2112 by Rush. And while Pete and Ed worshiped at the front of the stage, I played air guitar on a real guitar. The music was so loud that Mrs. Tennis-coach heard us two floors down.

I’d a busted us too. But then, I’d probably have let these stupid kids off. Mrs. Tennis-coach however, had a bit of a chip on her shoulder, I think. She didn’t teach anything. She was just there as the wife of the tennis coach. She didn’t have a purpose. And we were entitled rich kids. We deserved to be crushed. She was here because she was married to a coach. So, seriously, neither of them were brainiacs. And she didn’t seem as much pissed as “got your asses in a sling now, baby” agitated. She had won.

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