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Tragically Hip

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The genesis of the author's first published work 35 years ago as a teenager.

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I can't prove it, but I know I first used the term "tragically hip" in 1977 to describe the grad students in the Writing Seminars program at Johns Hopkins. They wore pre-Goth black clothes, were confused by hair care products, and hung out in the Gilman coffee shop. They were pretty pleased that they weren't in Iowa, but not completely satisfied.

A few years before, I had been among the Chosen who participated in the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth and its offshoots. As a result, I spent numerous pubescent Saturdays on the Homewood Campus learning to think critically from the grad students in the Writing Seminars program at Hopkins. "Tragically hip" was not an offhand remark.

Our little group of middle school geniuses neatly unwrapped and restacked the words of Borges, Dickinson, and similar each weekend under the guidance of some wooly twenty-something guy who was trying to choose between a semester in Paris or a first baby with his newlywed wife on his stipend. I remember one assignment very clearly because it later resulted in the first publication of something I had written. After having dissected Auden's poem describing Breughel's painting of the fall of Icarus, we were to write our own poems about a work of art. I had one in mind instantly.

If you grew up in or near Washington, DC when it was still a smallish town (speaking of irony, that means pre-Reagan), the National Mall easily folded out into the sort of expansive playground that overwhelms and occupies the most exuberant kids. And so it was for us. My parents had met and married in the city in 1957, two Pennsylvanians from opposite ends of the commonwealth brought together at that urban knot called Dupont Circle. After a few years living in DC and Arlington, our family counted six and moved to Baltimore County in 1965. We made the pre-I-95 trip to DC monthly to see my twice-great Aunt Dora and explore our nation's capitol and its treasures. Aunt Dora lived two blocks from the National Zoo.

The National Gallery of Art sits toward one end of the Mall. The original West Building is a substantial neo-classical colossus, worth every penny Andrew Mellon put forward to build. Within hangs a painting my mother loves. I can never remember the artist or the name of the painting. For years, each time we happened to wander toward that end of the Mall, we climbed into the museum, made a right and another right. There it was. A young woman of early modern Europe sits in front of a window on the canvas. The marble walls and floors were always cool. We stayed until someone was hungry (me).

With recollections of those visits in hand, I wrote my poem for the wunderkind workshop:

Portrait of a woman with head bowed.

She hangs upon the wall

in her gathered Puritan splendor

waiting for God to see

her eyes are closed.

I see only one;

the other is beyond

the horizon of her nose

(such delicate features,

creatures of a master).

Perhaps she is winking

but does not want us

to know her fallen grace;

she bows in shame. Or

perhaps she is sleeping,

and only her head has fallen.

Beside her

lace curtains fly into the room.

A couple or three years later, now a freshman at the very same Johns Hopkins (there being no other), I saw a notice by the mail boxes in the Writing Seminars offices seeking submissions to the Ithaca Women's Review, short written works, drawings, and photographs by or about women. I mailed a clean copy due north to upstate New York. It was accepted. They asked for a biographical blurb. I responded, "I was sixteen when I wrote this." A few months later, I received my complimentary issue of the publication, my poem on a page opposite a photo of a bored woman getting her hair done. When I scanned the bios, I saw that I was the only male contributor.

Now I was a newly minted author in tune enough with my feelings to be printed in a regional, collegial feminist rag. I could stake a claim to being hip. But then, I always knew I could somehow, despite that recent stint of Bible study and hand bells. Out in suburban Baltimore County, just past the Beltway, spawning ground for Spiro Agnew, we were surprisingly trendy. My older brother had purchased Janis Joplin's "Pearl" as his first album when my parents gave us kids a record player in 1972. Our baby sister did him one better, choosing a disk put out by CCR. She was eight. Thirty-plus years later, she figured out she was a lesbian after he gave up doing gay porn. We have odd sibling rivalries. Anyway, the very same parents of those children and me used to go to see Roberta Flack when she was a school teacher singing in DC clubs and coffee houses in the fifties. You wouldn't know it to look at us, but we were pretty cool. Way more than the Partridges.

Muchos años despues, there I was spending quite a bit of time in the Gilman coffee shop as a freshman commuting from the county. I had learned something else at Hopkins on those weekends peeling and dicing literature with the master's candidate discussion leaders and the other test-talented youth. Around the corner from the coffee shop was a rest room. The rest room had two stalls with about eight inches clearance from the floor to the partition. A small hole had been tooled through the partition, just big enough for a fisheye lens that was never installed. I did some writing in that rest room over the years. Short pieces. I was quite popular. Learned quite a bit. Sometimes we would have coffee afterwards. We would get to know each other by making labels for the other patrons stopping for a warm cup in Gilman Hall. Nothing serious.

I never hooked up with any of the graduate students from the Writing Seminars department. No unshaven, ditzy young writers for this kid. I had a label for them.

They were tragically hip.

 

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hoping to some day have my essays published and plays produced; passionate about helping community college students succeed; work a daily program of meditation and self-inventory; absolutely, incredibly happy and grateful for the life I (more...)
 
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