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Threads: A Sojourn in Syracuse

Letters written by me, updated September 2001
to include the period July 1969-January 1971

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Background:  I kept writing to college friends as I moved on to graduate school at Syracuse University in upstate New York — even though one of the girls had once, for some reason, compared me to a fuzzy caterpillar.

This thread is about life in Syracuse; click here for a thread about my broadcasting studies.


Thursday, July 31, 1969

You're right; living is expensive.  Fortunately, I won't need to have a car at Syracuse.   But the place where I'll be living is only a mile to a mile and a quarter from the campus, depending on what part of the campus I'm going to, so I'll be able to walk to class each day.  (Although it might get slightly uncomfortable on cold, windy winter days, or during thunderstorms.  There are no public buildings along the route in which I could take shelter, only private houses.)  The walking will keep me healthy, and besides it's easier than driving.

I'll be playing the organ for a wedding in Richwood on the afternoon of September 7, and the next morning I'll set out for New York State.  Not much leeway there.  This will be the ninth couple I've married since December 1963; the bride was a high school classmate of mine.


Saturday, August 9, 1969

My mother and I made a shopping trip Wednesday morning, supposedly to buy me a pair of shoes.  We ended up buying two pairs, one of them brown, plus a brown suede hat to replace the black one I wore at Oberlin, plus a pair of brown earmuffs, plus a $55 winter coat — also brown, of course.  This coat is a double-breasted affair with a furry lining which also covers the outside of the lapels, which are on the inside when the coat's buttoned up for cold weather.  I don't intend to perish from the cold while walking to class.

Well, good luck on your new job, and I hope you find it sufficiently interesting.

I just had a horrible thought about my own future enterprises.  Some day this winter at Syracuse, I'm going to be standing there in my brown coat with its furry lapels, wearing my brown hat and those furry brown earmuffs, feeling very important — grad student, you know, working on my master's — and some girl is going to come up to me and look me over and then say, "Hi, Fuzzy."  Aaaaugh!

Thursday, August 21, 1969

You may be partly right about Mrs. Harris, my landlady at Syracuse.  If she takes too much of a personal interest in my doings, it could get to be a little stifling.  On the other hand, if I had my way I would not just be "on my own"; I'd be a hermit except when I was at the University, living completely alone with no neighbors to have to say good morning to.  That isn't good, either.  Talking to my landlady about a few things other than "Hi, here's your rent money for next month" ought to help make me a little more outgoing, which is something I need to learn.  (How long did I know you before I asked you for a date?)

A 1985 photo of the house where I roomed in 1969-70
A 1985 photo of the house
where I roomed in 1969-70

So you're experimenting to find the effect of a new analgesic (pain-killer) on mice.  Tell me, how does one determine whether or not a mouse is in pain?  Observe the expression on his face?

You'd better wear some real shoes to work, or those mice might start forming opinions.  I know the mice in this part of the country think that anyone wearing sandals (and long hair) is a hippie and a Communist and maybe worse, and hasn't done a day of honest work in his/her ("you can't tell, the way they're wearing their hair these days") life.  And to top it off, when you pull out your hypodermic and start giving those mice some pain-killing drugs — well!  They'll think you're a pusher for sure.

I'd like to see the expressions on their faces if you show up for work in sandals.


2010 UPDATE  Of course, I was merely joking about observing facial expressions of lab mice.  In the summer of ’69, I’m informed, scientists could gauge mouse pain only by observing mouse behavior, for example how often the animal licked its sore paw.

Jan Olson, to whom the above letter was addressed, replied as follows.  “No, we do not use mouse facial expressions as determinants of pain.  We have five or six very reliable tests for whether or not a mouse is feeling pain.  The principle of such a test might be:  Do something which is expected to induce pain in the mouse.  Observe how he behaves (a facial grimace might be one possible response).  Then inject a mouse with some compound and note whether or not the usual pain reaction is present when pain is induced.  If not, the injected compound may have analgesic properties.”

According to Jeffrey Mogil at Montreal’s McGill University (in this article), “Most pain drugs fail in human trials, because pain-drug effectiveness in rodent trials is based on sensitivity to touch, which is not a good indicator of spontaneous pain.”  

But hold the phone!  Now Dr. Mogil has developed a new pain scale based on facial expressions.  Apparently a mouse grimaces to let his friends know that he’s hurting.  I was right, 40 years ahead of my time!

This illustration is from the September 2010 issue of Popular Science.  In an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Anne McIllroy explained:  “Dr. Mogil’s research measured the experience of pain based on the rodent’s facial expressions:  They squeeze their eyes, scrunch up their noses and push out their cheeks, much like humans do.  They also push back their ears and move their whiskers, says Mogil, who collaborated with the University of British Columbia’s Kenneth Craig on the project.  When these features are combined in one expression, it means the mouse is hurting.  The new scale, published in the journal Nature Methods, could help scientists more accurately predict whether a pain-killing compound will work in humans.”


Wednesday, September 17, 1969

You know, I am having fun here.  Somehow I seem much more aware of what's going on in the past week or so, more able to appreciate things, more self-confident, than I was all summer.  I imagine that this euphoria will last until I finally have to produce a term paper or something, at which time I'll come back down to earth.  But some examples of what I'm talking about:

I've never been much of an art critic, but one afternoon, I found myself wandering around the campus looking at statues and other art objects they have set around, and actually (I think) appreciating them.

There's a large mosaic mural on the end of one building dealing with a couple of Italian immigrants who were executed back in the 1920's after a trial of questionable fairness.  I began noticing things like the two Italians cast shadows but the other people in the picture, all of whom were much smaller, didn't.  And the portion of the background which represented the courthouse was a confused jumble not following the laws of perspective at all, whereas the portion of the background which represented a factory where the common man worked was done with solid and straight-forward perspective.

"The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti" pictured in Syracuse University Alumni News, Spring 1970

I spent some time also comparing two statues on opposite ends of the campus, one of them showing a muscular Hercules firing an arrow horizontally while bracing himself against some rocks, and the other showing a rather gaunt Indian bracing himself awkwardly against some rocks and using all his strength to fire an arrow straight up toward the stars.  I must say I preferred the second one.

The "second one" is on the right.  This is the Saltine Warrior, from a Super 8 film I shot during a return visit in 1973.

Below, Hercules and the Warrior, in pictures I took in 1985.


The Saltine Warrior


Other examples of my expanded consciousness include the pleasure I've been getting from eating (maybe that's just because the food isn't too bad) and even the enjoyment I got out of reading your last letter.

Oh, yes, and between dinner Monday and dinner Tuesday I attended two 2-hour classes, read three books, and got ten hours of sleep.  How's that for healthy activity?  (Well, actually two of the books were less than 50 pages long, but it sounds good.)  

Saturday, September 20, 1969

The only problem that has arisen concerning the long walk between 139 Miles Avenue and the campus is that my feet tend to get a little tired.  It's even a little rougher on weekends, since the cafeteria where I like to eat is apparently only open five days a week.  I had to walk an extra half-mile this noon to reach a hamburger shop — and then another mile and a half back here to tend to my letter-writing.  Three miles of walking just so I could eat lunch!

The nearest hamburger shop was Carrol's, just beyond the campus in the rather scruffy commercial block of Marshall Street.

Photo: Syracuse University Alumni News, Spring 1970


Saturday, September 27, 1969

Tom Thomas still hasn't grown up; he has no car, and he even still has other people do his laundry for him.  (I just got back two weeks' worth of laundry from the cleaner's, along with a bill for $4.70.  All I have to do is walk three quarters of a mile every fortnight with my accumulated used clothes in a bag, drop them off at the Nottingham Dry Cleaners, and then wait for them to be cleaned and delivered to me here so that I can put them back into my closet.  Personally, I find that's it's well worth the money.)


A major issue for all students at the time was the war in Viet Nam.  Click here for that thread.


Saturday, October 11, 1969

Good morning!  I just had a "breakfast" here in my room consiting of two Space Food Sticks (chocolate flavor) and a few sips from the glass of water I keep in a drawer.  Not much of a breakfast at 82 calories, but on Saturday and Sunday it's too much trouble to walk to a restaurant more than twice a day.  I'll get a real meal after I finish writing you and WOBC.


Wednesday, October 22, 1969

It's actually snowing today in Syracuse.  Great big, wet flakes; no accumulation on the ground yet, but I've heard that once it gets cold enough for the snow to accumulate, it never melts but just keeps on accumulating.  Somebody said that Syracuse gets more snow than any other city in the United States except Nome, Alaska.  It ought to be an interesting winter.


Monday, January 12, 1970

It's cold here and snowy, but I'm almost beginning to get used to it.  I'm turning into quite a mountain climber, scrambling over those ridges of snow that the plows throw up at the intersections to block off the sidewalks.

At the cafeteria where I eat, an apparent new arrival from some foreign country was going through the line ahead of me.  There's a choice among four entrees, and his lady friend chose lamb.  He thought it looked good, but he wasn't sure, so he asked the server behind the counter, "What does lamb taste like?"  Now how would you answer that question?

The Link Hall of Engineering (left) and Slocum Hall (right).  I customarily ate at a cafeteria on the ground floor of Slocum.

Photo: Syracuse University Alumni News, Spring 1970

Incidentally, the food at this cafeteria is quite good, and the prices seem reasonable.  For instance, at that meal last Friday I had the lamb, with dressing and a boiled potato and gravy over it all, a good-sized salad, a cup of clam chowder, iced tea with lemon and sugar, a piece of pie, and a half-pint of milk, all of which came to $1.88.  It would have been fine if the guy behind me as I checked out hadn't asked me incredulously whether I was going to eat "all of that."  First time anyone's accused me of eating too much.  (I had a finicky appetite as a youngster.)


Saturday, January 17, 1970

Do you have any idea how warm a 34-degree day feels after two weeks of minus-10 to plus-15?  Since yesterday afternoon, we've been having a heat wave here in Syracuse.  It actually got up to 34 this morning.  It's due to cool off again tonight and be cold and windy tomorrow, but in the meantime, I'm almost convinced that it's spring.  I don't have to bundle up so much when I go outside; now I can get along with just hat, boots, heavy coat, and heavy gloves, whereas when it was really winter I also had to wear earmuffs and a scarf over my face.  Today there's a very fine snow falling which, if it were rain, would be a typical April drizzle.  Without earmuffs, I can hear birds singing as I walk.  The cars on the streets make wet noises rather than icy noises.  There's a constant dripping of water as ten-foot-long icicles, hanging in huge masses from the edges of roofs, melt.  It's spring!


Sunday, February 22, 1970

Mrs. Harris, my landlady, left this afternoon on a ten-day group trip to Israel; she'll be back March 3 to attend a wedding, and then on March 12 she goes south (Florida and D.C., one month each) to visit her two sons and their families.  So I'll be here all by myself for two months, except for the people living in the upstairs half of this duplex (whom I hear but almost never see).  That's fine with me.  I can leave my doors open so that my room doesn't get so cold, and I may even move the portable TV in here so I can watch it in bed.  Privacy is luxury.


Saturday, April 25, 1970

Maybe spring is finally beginning to diffract around that corner.  The temperature's in the sixties today, the sun is shining, and down at the campus the fraternity/sorority types are having their "Greek week" celebrations.  When I walked down there for lunch, there was a policeman at every corner, apparently to protect the revelers from traffic.  There were assembling crepe-paper-covered chariots in their equivalent of Oberlin's men's quad, while toga-wearing fellows and normally-dressed girls marched in groups toward that area, the girls singing loudly.  I guess they were going to have a chariot race of some kind, but I didn't stay to find out.

But still the grass is only beginning to get green.  (My parents tell me that back in Ohio the grass is so tall that they'll have to mow it this weekend.  You probably already have mowed in your area.)  I always looked forward to the first Saturday in May because it always seemed to be the first really pleasant summer day — that's about the time the first dandelions bloom in Ohio — but at the rate we're going here in this cold New York climate, I'll have to wait until June for that sort of weather.


Friday, May 8, 1970

The last week in April was quite warm and pleasant, and it looked like summer had suddenly come to stay; temperatures were near 80.  Two days ago it snowed.  A quarter of an inch.  The temperature got down to 27.  It's on its way back up now, but the damage has been done:  we now have had eight straight months of snow, October through May.


Friday, May 29, 1970

A girl in our group has an old 1957 Cadillac coupe which she has named "Carmichael."  Why did she name it that?  Well, said another guy in our group, she probably was driving it one day when one of her passengers said, "You'd better be careful; any moment now, this Carmichael apse."


Sunday, June 14, 1970

Okay, stand up.  Just stand still there for a moment.  Feel your feet pushing against the floor to hold you up?  Now let your legs relax.  Your feet are no longer pushing down, so you collapse to the floor as gravity pulls you down.

While you're down there in a heap, consider.  If the force exerted by your feet equals your weight, you'll stand upright.  If the force is less than your weight, you'll sink to the ground.  What if the force is greater than your weight?  Will you not rise into the air?

It seems reasonable, if you conveniently forget about the fact that the force will cease to be effective the moment your feet leave the ground.  It seems even more reasonable to me when I'm asleep (horizontal and dreaming).

Every now and then I have a dream in which I'm walking along and then just press a little harder against the sidewalk and rise a few inches into the air, supported by the thrust coming from the bottom of my feet.  I increase the thrust a little and lean forward, and immediately I'm effortlessly gliding down the sidewalk, not moving a muscle, just pressing down with my feet.  Did you ever have a dream like that?  Or is it only me that's crazy?

Maybe I just spend too much time walking.  My rough estimate is that by the time I get out of here in August, I will have spent about three weeks' worth of time doing nothing but walking, with a total distance of nearly 2,000 miles.  (That's an average of about two round trips per day to a point a mile and a half distant.)


Saturday, June 27, 1970

I'm surprised that back when everyone was citing proof that Paul McCartney was dead, no one mentioned the song "Come Together" from the Abbey Road album.  "He say, 'One and one and one is three'; got to be good-looking 'cause he's so hard to see.  'Come together, right now, over me.'"  The invisible fourth member of the group, singing from his grave and urging the survivors to close ranks.  I don't know, maybe somebody did mention it.  Anyhow, now the situation has changed:  McCartney's alive, but the Beatles are rumored dead.


Saturday, August 1, 1970

I saw an interesting sign this afternoon at a dry-cleaning establishment that's open six days a week.  "We give outstanding service (except Saturday)."  Couldn't they have worded that a little differently?


I graduated from the master's program August 6, 1970.


Sunday, January 2, 1971

The air may be clear in Rochester, but that certainly wasn't the case over in Syracuse.  There were many days when it was hardly possible to see from one side of Lake Onondaga to the other (about a mile).  Of course, on the south shore of the lake was a big chemical plant.

The only times the sky really looked clear were after a cold front moved through; the precipitation washed the air, and the high-pressure air that followed was comparatively clean at first.



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