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Letters from Jan: Senior
Compiled July 2016

 

Background:  Before the invention of e-mail — and long before instant messaging and texts and tweets and all that — people used to write letters.  Lengthy letters, on actual paper, thoughtfully composed using proper English.

An acquaintance would write out her thoughts by hand and mail them to me.  A few days later, I'd receive her letter and compose my answer using a machine called a “typewriter,” which enabled me to retain a “carbon copy.”   After mailing the reply, I'd file my copy and her original letter for posterity.

And thus, dear posterity, I’m able to retrieve the messages I exchanged nearly half a century ago with my Oberlin College friend Janet Elaine Olson, who passed away in 2015.

I wrote Remembering Jan for this website.  Then I compiled the present article, consisting of excerpts from dozens of her letters.

What did we write about?  Among other things, we continued to discuss our separate romantic situations, hers especially, but I’m keeping that part mostly private.  She wrote candidly about her emotional ups and downs, from camping to working her way through med school.

I’ve divided this entertaining collection of correspondence into four quarters.  Click away!

Jan in our Oberlin sophomore yearbook

1.

Senior
Finishing college, pondering relationships and God

~
1968-69

2.

Readjustment
We go our separate ways as graduates

~
1969-70

3.

Onward
Further adventures lead finally to wedding bells

~
1970-72

 

4.

Paired
Jan becomes a doctor and a mother

~
1973-78

 

Start of 1st Quarter . . . Senior

Jan and I both majored in physics at Oberlin College, planning on further education afterwards.  Typically, a graduate from our department would go on to a PhD degree in physics, but we found other fields more interesting.  She had decided to become a medical doctor, and I eventually decided (based on my experiences at campus radio station WOBC) to go into broadcasting.

Here are condensed versions of four of Jan’s letters from our senior year, beginning a month before classes resumed.  She had a summer job as a nurse’s aide near her home of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.  In the first week of August she found time to compose a mostly-serious eight-page epistle.

 

Sunday, August 4, 1968

I have just completed all of my preliminary application to the University of Wisconsin Medical School except for writing a brief essay.  I am going to write about the need for special training for nurses and nurse’s aides to help prevent hospital trauma in children.  In a recent study of T&A patients, 20% left the hospital with severe residual emotional disturbances.

One important thing I am going to have to learn before I become a doctor is how not to become involved with my patients — how to leave their troubles at work.  As it is now, I spend a good deal of my “spare” time thinking about my kiddies.  What will become of 3-year-old Stevey, the severely neglected son by incest of a girl who is now 17?  How can I reach Curtie to help him realize that he can talk again?  How can I get him to try?

Religion

I was interested to read your opinions, the ideas of a rebel from within the Methodist Church.  I started thinking hard many years ago about God and Christianity (“Pensar es dubar” — to think is to doubt), and my religion now is a result of all this thought and of my experiences.

I have never decided “that God was no more real than Santa Claus.”  I rejected the Christian church because I did not believe the things that Christians presumably believe (eg, Christ = God, heaven and hell after death, etc.).  But I will never say that God does not exist.  I don’t know.  I’m agnostic.

The way I tend to approach religion is not to ask “Does God exist?” but to ask “What is God?”  My understanding at present has some similarities to yours.  Either “God is love,” or love is the way in which man becomes aware of God.  Some of the manifestations of love are acts of “morality, kindness, justice, humility, et cetera.”  I believe that there are other manifestations of love (or “God’s grace”) which come in an unexplainable, personal way to each individual — moments of extreme happiness, peace, well-being, beauty.

I do have a strong desire to believe in the supernatural.  My interest in ESP (and in UFO’s and in other galaxies) is related to this because I am fascinated by the mysterious and the unknown.  They seduce my imagination.

Reasons

Let me tell you about some of the elements in my background which have led to my present feelings concerning religion.

First of all, prayer works.  I believe that the healing miracles of Christ at Capernaum really did occur, and that similar miracles continue occurring even today.  Faith can accomplish wonders, whether it is faith in God, or faith in Christ, or faith in Allah, or faith in a lucky charm.  Any doctor can tell you of medically well people who died because they believed they would die, and of ill people who lived because they believed that they would.  There is a mind-body or mind-matter relationship which, sophisticated as we are, we know almost nothing about.

Perhaps there is such a thing as a “soul,” or “spirit.”  I don’t agree with your statement that there is no evidence for one.  I would say rather that there are observations which can be called evidence for the existence of the soul or of an after-life, or which can be explained using any other hypothesis you choose.  For example, what do you make of the statements of persons who have “died” and then have been revived?  They describe scenes of beauty, recognizing Christ and/or deceased relatives, etc.  As Thomas Edison was dying, he suddenly sat bolt upright in bed and said, “I’m surprised.  It’s really very beautiful over there.”  (I used this example in a speech entitled “What Is Death?” which I made in 10th grade at the Temple University Speech Festival.  I received a commendation of “excellence” in public speaking for the 5-minute speech.)

I choose to believe in the existence of the soul and of an after-life of some sort.  The belief is no doubt “escapist,” since I have absolutely no way of knowing, but nothing on this earth can shake the belief (probably because it is necessary for the equanimity of my psyche).  Just in case, though, I sure am lucky that I have had excellent health and more opportunities for happiness than any human being could reasonably ask for.

I also believe (most of the time) in a loving, personal God.  I have to.  My life is so full and has moments so intense that I could not bear to live my life alone.  Such happiness and good fortune does not occur without reason:  it is a gift of God.  Furthermore, I have experienced a few “crises” from which I was pulled by who-knows-what.  By inner resources I never knew I had?  Could be.  It could also be the intervention of someone else’s love, or the love of a “divine Being.”  One never can tell.

(Two letters on this subject that I wrote before and after this one are excerpted here.)

Crying

I was surprised to hear that you were surprised that Janet Olson was capable of crying when things go wrong and of shshflumping.  I don’t shshflump [faint] very often — once every 21 years — but I do cry:  from unhappiness, from being hurt, from frustration and disappointment (Physics 36 grade), and then from happiness and events which move me.  (I cried at the performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony which you took me to).

On the other hand, few people suspect that I have feelings and emotions.  Several Oberlin people have told me that it seems to them that I am shallow.

One of these persons — who used to be a very close friend — once took me for a walk of more than an hour late one winter’s night.  He was telling me (for my own good, of course) that, although he felt that I had hidden potentialities, at the moment I had virtually no worth as a person.  At the end of the hour, he left me off at my dorm saying that he hoped that a little of what he had said might have reached me so that I could be helped.  Then he left.

He did not know that for the past hour as we had walked, I had been weeping.  It was one of those bitterly cold nights that make one’s nose run, so it did not surprise him that I sniffed often.  That I was silent did not disturb him, either, for he had much to say.

After he left, I lay on the crusted snow outside of South Hall for an hour and a half.  Finally I went inside.  The next day, I moved into [Professor] Weinstock’s house for several days to rest and to think and to try to regain some self-confidence.  As far as my “friend” was concerned, he probably had been unable to “reach” me, shallow and self-centered and unconcerned as I was, and my case was next to hopeless.

This doesn’t really have anything to do with the fact that you were surprised that I could cry, except that your opinion doesn’t seem to be unusual.  Most people assume that I can’t cry.  But I can.  And I do.

I just put into the oven a blueberry pie which I made from the fresh mountain blueberries my family picked on Pilot Knob during their vacation at Lake George.  The family got back last night.

While browsing in the library the other day, I came across some books by Mika Waltari, author of The Egyptian, which is one of the best adventure stories I have ever read.  Now I am reading The Etruscan by the same author.

 

On my last two days off, I traveled to all the stores in Kennett, Newark [Delaware], and Wilmington where I have ever bought clothes.  I window-shopped, observing just what was in style for fall and winter and how much it cost.  Then I went to Sharrah’s, a fabric shop in Newark, and bought material, notions, and patterns for a good dress, a corduroy jumper, and a “leather” skirt.

The previous month, Jan had written me a letter with only one paragraph on the final page, so she trimmed off the excess paper using the pinking shears from her sewing kit.

Upon receipt, I objected that the term “pinking” was sexist.  Little girls wear pink, but little boys wear blue!  Why not make the shears gender-neutral and call them “purpling”?

She responded by ending her August 4 letter with a feminist objection of her own, plus a custom-trimmed bottom edge.

Although it may be a man’s world, I see no reason why pinking shears should be called purpling shears.  Enough is enough!

After all, a compromise has already been made in the world of diapers, and a rather severe one at that.

How do you think diapers are kept white?  They are washed with bluing! 

Those poor little girl babies must wear diapers kept white with bluing.  I wonder how they ever managed to keep the rights they did retain (just the fringe benefits).  Probably it was shear luck.


 Wednesday, August 21, 1968

... Another result of this incident was that I began to wonder whether there is such a thing as friendship between a boy and a girl of college age.  Can a girl have a good time with a boy simply because she likes him?  Or is this unfair to the boy?  Is it always the case that when the girl shows interest, the boy gets designs?

Being dumb, I don’t learn, and so I continue believing (or at least hoping) that boy-girl friendship is possible.  (I sort of ignore the fact that I know I tried my darnedest not to give that “friend” any Ideas, and still things got messed up.)  This allows me to continue being myself.  Otherwise I’d have to lock myself up in my room to avoid all social contact.

Human relations sure are uncertain.  People are so different from each other.  There are some people who don’t want to get hurt, yet would like to be understood.  And then there are other people who don’t want to do any hurting, but would like to understand.


We had previously attended church services together.  When classes resumed, I wrote Jan a note inquiring what plans we should make for that Sunday.  Apparently I could have worded my note better, because I got this reply.

Saturday, September 14, 1968

Boy, you are an original!  How to ask a girl if she would like to join you for church:  “You have a choice of two plans for tomorrow...”

Suggestion #1:  No matter how confident you may be that a girl is just dying to do something with you, don’t throw away that nice little formality of asking her first.  No girl likes to feel that she is “Good ol’ ___, always available” (whether she is or not).  Asking her to do something with you as if you considered it a pleasure and a privilege is courteous, and it shows a little respect for her person.  Besides, someday you might be surprised at her answer.  A very important clue for dealing with any girl (or woman) on the face of this planet:  NO ONE LIKES TO BE TAKEN FOR GRANTED!

Now I’ve told you bluntly what I think.  This is the first time I’ve let you know that I was angry at you (other times I’ve shouted harmless tirades at my mirror).  I’m sorry to be so hard on you, but you’re going to be getting to know girls personally from now on, and there are some fundamentals you should know.

— If you were to invite me to join you at church tomorrow, I would probably accept the invitation to meet you at 10:40 AM (as I usually take only five minutes for breakfast).

The next month, still undecided about what I was going to do after college, I tried to explain another possible misunderstanding.  I later recalled that on the evening in question, “you talked to Bruce for several hours, then came up to the WOBC Conference Room and talked to me, though mostly in French.  You also kept doing things like standing in the corner, and I, being male and interested, kept doing things like joining you there.”  The day after the evening in question, I wrote:

May I try to clear up a confusing statement I made last night about 7:18?  I’ve been getting progressively more depressed lately, about many things (I have almost zero interest in studying graduate physics, I’m getting behind in my problem sets, there are difficult WOBC decisions to be made, I have to force myself to work on the problem sets, etc.), and one of the best ways I have of curing such depression if I can’t solve the problems I’m having is to have you pay attention to me.  A conversation with you is always a great morale- and ego-booster.

Unfortunately, when I’m depressed I find it more difficult to come up with interesting little comments which will turn your attention to me at dinner, and it’s impossible to hold your attention for longer than twenty seconds because in my un-self-confident state I just am not that good at conversation, and someone else grabs you away when I stop to think.  The fact that you seem almost exclusively interested in someone else then further depresses me, unless somehow I can manage to catch you alone and get you to talk to me.

That’s why I arranged to make the trip over to Wilder with you last night even though I had absolutely nothing to say to you; I just wanted you to spend a little time with me and thereby partly restore my confidence in myself.  And that’s what I was trying to say to you, although since nothing seemed to be going right yesterday it didn’t come out very coherently at all.  I’m sorry.

You’ll probably often find me asking, in one fashion or another, for moral support.  Not for specific help on specific matters, but just for some repeated assurance that you still think I’m a good guy regardless of all that Math 33A homework I don’t have done yet.  On my part, I’ll keep trying to learn how to be a good guy.


Monday, December 30, 1968 

A year before, we had conducted a silly correspondence in a Runic alphabet.  For this Christmas, I revived the idea but with a variation that I called Anti-Runic.  Jan had no trouble decoding my letter and using my alphabet to reply with three pages like this:

Dear Tom,

Isn’t this a nice blue pen from Union Park Pontiac?  Why doesn’t Vernon Thomas Chevrolet give out such nice pens?

On Christmas Eve, all of us traipsed over to our next-door neighbors’ to visit.  Suddenly a car drove up and Mr. Defrade, another neighbor, ran up to tell us that our burglar alarm had been set off!  The six of us, plus the Hamms (more neighbors), all arrived at our house at about the same time.  The siren was screaming and the huge beacon on top of the roof was whirling and flashing. 

Art Defrade and Mr. Hamm quickly ran around the house to see where the burglar might have entered.  The living room door was unlocked, though closed.  The burglar probably closed the door quickly when he heard the alarm go off, hoping to make the alarm be quiet.  Of course, the alarm kept on being alarmed for twelve whole minutes.

You surely must have seen all the Apollo 8 telecasts.  Wasn’t that whole flight simply fantastic?  It’s the most exciting event of ante-Runian times!  Imagine actually orbiting the moon — and with an apolune of only 60 miles!

It has been good to have everybody home — except that everyone but me has had the flu!  No one has brought up the subject of boys (and me) yet, so all has been relaxed and peaceful in our house so far.  This will probably change soon, as I plan to talk to Mom about a certain young man who lives in Florida.


. . . End of 1st Quarter

 

1.

Senior
Finishing college, pondering relationships and God

~
1968-69

Next

2.

Readjustment
We go our separate ways as graduates

~
1969-70

3.

Onward
Further adventures lead finally to wedding bells

~
1970-72

4.

Paired
Jan becomes a doctor and a mother

~
1973-78

 

TBT

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