Monday, September 20, 2010


I finished high school in Vermillion. I skipped one year because the two programs didn’t jive, so my parents wanted me to stay what would have been my senior year at home, attending the University of South Dakota.

I was very lucky to have been connected with two very fine music teachers: Genevieve Truran (piano) and Jack Noble (organ.) Both of them taught me by example that good teachers are just about the finest people you will ever meet. Teachers change your life, for the good.

Miss Truran helped me to develop a critical musical ear, and later this combined with the teachings of others to make me more analytical. One of the transitions from childhood to adulthood is the development of an analytical mind and high standards. Good education develops it while minimizing cynicism. Much of that is through example. Sitting on a piano or organ bench right next to the teacher is about as good as education gets.

It was through the fact that Miss Truran had taught at Oberlin that I ended up going there. I asked her after one piano lesson, “What school should I attend?” I had not thought about this little detail one bit—like any teenager. She responded, “Oberlin.”
So I applied and was accepted. It cost a lot of money, and I suspect my father was not particularly keen on the expense--$4,000 per year! But I never heard him complain.

Once I got there, I felt like a fish out of water. It seemed like everyone was from a private school. The first night at Oberlin was eventful. It was raining (as always), and I was settling into my new room. My roommate was due sometime during the night. I had a new tape recorder and an electronic timer, so I recorded the sound of rain falling, part of the Toccata and Fugue in E-Flat Major (St. Anne), and the phrase, “Get Up, Get Up, or I’ll Kill You!” I set the timer and fell asleep. During the night, my new roommate moved in. In the morning, the timer goes off. There’s the sound of rain falling, the lovely sounds of the St. Anne, and then, those fateful words followed by a blood-curdling scream from a scantily clad young body plummeting out of the room. He moved across the corridor that day.

Oberlin did not suit me. I was not ready. The first semester, I took a very hard course of study: German, Calculus II, Organic Chemistry, and Urban Sociology. I loved the German and studied assiduously. But I gave up on the calculus and chemistry, never going to classes or taking the exams. I somehow slipped into a habit that some behaviorists refer to as “learned helplessness,” which caused me to enter a downward mental spiral.

I grasped at anything that would serve as a lifebuoy. During that first fall semester, I had to start thinking about what I was going to do for a Winter Term project. This was a one-month period sandwiched between the two semesters. During this month, students were expected to engage in projects that would help them develop professional interests that might lie outside of conventional coursework.

One day, while walking through the French Department, I saw an advertisement on the board outside Professor Henry Grubbs’ office. It was to spend the semester translating an old French food chemistry text. This was exciting.

That January, although I had flunked out of both Calculus II and Organic Chemistry (hard to pass if you don’t do the homework or attend class), I worked very hard on translating the book. In addition, I decided to cook five French meals using the Time-Life volume of Cooking of Provincial France, by Julia Child. Every single meal was a flop—in terms of timing. But I was thrilled. I would cook from 9 AM to 7 PM, serve the meal and feel totally refreshed. I remember making cream of mushroom soup and being enthralled with its flavor. I made a pork terrine by freezing pork, cutting it into bits, then smashing it with a hammer to get the requisite puréed texture.

I did all sorts of experimentation. Playing around with hard-crack sugar, coloring it, dropping it on an iced cake. I made meringues and sandwiched them with chocolate mousse. I really enjoyed moving away from written instructions. Here was my true calling. Although I was a fine musician, pretty good at following the written score, I could never leave the train tracks and tootle out into the pasture. But with cooking…

In contrast to the epiphanic Winter Term, the spring semester and fall semester of the following year were sheer misery. My self esteem had plummeted to close to zero. I was running on empty and burning oil. By the late fall, I had arranged another Winter Term, this time as an intern at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans. I don’t remember how I arranged this job, but I did. In any case, halfway through fall, I was ready to drop out.

However, I had this dream. I wanted to return to France, as that’s where I had been so happy. I still spoke fluent French and read quite well; I made a point to read French books—e.g., The Count of Monte Cristo, Gone with the Wind, and Around the World in 80 Days. So, I wrote a letter that I addressed to 25 hotels, asking them to take me on as an apprentice. I took the letter to the French department and asked them to proof-read it for me, then I typed each one out on a manual typewriter and mailed all 25 letters off.

Some time in November, I received 3 responses! One said “no”. One said “yes” but we don’t have any positions open right now. And one said ... “yes!!!” I was thrilled. All my problems were solved. The pathway to my new life lay before me, beckoning.

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