Excerpts

A few years ago, I was walking on the Strand in Hermosa Beach with my college roommate Susannah. We hadn’t seen each other in years and we were looking forward to catching up. It was one of those rare days for Southern California—the beach was deserted, cold and grey. The wind was whipping the ocean into choppy swells. The seagulls, grounded, were all planted in the sand facing in the same direction, into the wind. It was the kind of day I loved.

We talked about our most recent creative projects and immediately fell into a brainstorming session about them. Hours slipped by and eventually we found ourselves talking about the old days. At one point, Susannah turned to me and said, “I actually remember the very first time I saw you. It was in Erlebacher’s class.”

“Oh, God, Erlebacher, the wunderkind,” I said. “I haven’t thought about him in years — I just remember that everyone was terrified of him.” We laughed thinking back on our first days at Pratt Institute and the stress we felt at seventeen, just out of high school and trying to please the mad professor. He was already a well-known sculptor by the time he came to teach at Pratt and we all craved his respect. He'd told us that he didn’t like to draw because real life doesn’t have edges.

“Wasn’t he the guy who sometimes threw people’s projects against the wall?” I asked.

“I remember him just smashing them with his hands,” she replied. We laughed again at the thought of it—twenty-five hours on a project, working until dawn for days in a row, and then being crushed in front of the whole class.

“Remember all those industrial design guys in there?” she said.

“Yeah,” I replied. “I remember they were engineering types. We were the only ones in graphics and the only women. There must have been thirty of them and just the two of us. I could never figure out how we got put in there.”

“I was so relieved,” Susannah went on, “when you walked in and sat down that first day, though it wasn’t until the next week that we got to see a full-blown Erlebacher tirade. He totally humiliated this guy for trying to get away with mediocre work by giving it a clever name. I think the guy called his project The Garage Mahal.

 

‘Content is what matters,’ Erlebacher said. ‘Nomenclature is ancillary. If you don’t get that point, you’re not going to make it through this program. In fact, you’re not going to make it past this class.’ He went on and on. No one knew how to respond. ‘You’re in college now,’ he told us. ‘Substance is what counts. It’s not about names. NAMES DON’T MATTER!’

“I was already on edge,” Susannah continued, “when he turned towards us and said, ‘Okay, let’s move on to the next project.’ Then Erlebacher looked directly at you and said, ‘What’s your name?’ and in front of all those guys, without missing a beat, you answered, ‘Just call me Irving.’

“There was dead silence in the classroom. Then everyone started laughing, everyone except Erlebacher. He didn’t even smile.

“I was amazed,” Susannah went on, “how you managed to break the tension in the room for everyone and somehow not leave yourself exposed.”

“In my family it was the only way I could survive,” I said. “I don’t even remember that Erlebacher incident — I just remember feeling vulnerable and powerless that first year of college and how bad things were at home.”

An image popped into my mind, an image of me driving an old green and white Chrysler to school every day, alternating between my two realities. The following year, I moved into an apartment that Susannah shared with three other roommates.

“My childhood was so confusing,” I continued. “We looked like a perfect family — we dressed well, we had straight teeth, we took family vacations, we went out to eat on weekends, we even laughed a lot. In many ways it was a great family experience. But underneath, in the place where I really lived, I was so unhappy — I felt so attacked, so wounded. It’s taken me a lifetime to make sense of it all.”

“Well, if this is a crazy contest,” she continued, “my family wins. We didn’t even look normal.” Susannah and I laughed.

“Isn’t it astonishing,” I said, “how indelible the family experience is? And that every family is its own universe.”