The Alumni Magazine
Bill Long 11/24/07
An Unintended Serious/Humorous Window into the Culture
Each month, or quarter (I don't keep track), I am deluged by alumni magazines. Two or three of them come from schools I attended, and one or two are from those that my kids or ex-wife attended. Everyone in my family seems to put my home address as their official address, and it yields a veritable feast of these kinds of magazines. I usually don't have time to read them, but today is the lazy Saturday after Thanksgiving (I don't do much early Christmas shopping), and I decided to glance through the Willamette University (Salem, OR) mag, entitled The Scene. It, like all of them, is a glossy 50 or so page magazine, which trumpets the achievement of alumns, tells stories of how people's hearts have been strangely warmed (it is, you know, a Methodist school) by contact with Willamette, and gives alums all kinds of reasons to continue sending money to the place.
And, indeed, the stories of human achievement or memory told in these pages are impressive. An emeritus faculty member, age 103, remembers the planting of Willamette's famous "Star Trees" (five Giant Sequoias) in 1941; these trees are now supposed to be the tallest trees on any American campus. A senior student who won the women's Division III Cross Country run, the daughter and grand-daughter of alums, has some inspirational and encouraging things to say about the school. Smiling and serious faces of about a dozen new assistant and associate professors fill two pages, with their "Ph.D school" and their interestest described. The tradition continues...
I frankly confess that I read these mags to pick up three types of things: (1) useful quotations that speakers who come onto campus make and are quoted in the stories about them; (2) "cutting-edge" research or activities the faculty or alumni are engaged in; and (3) mistakes, unintended humor or non-sequiturs that I can ferret out of the pages. Since the mags don't have the staffs that Time or People boast, the third category can unwittingly produce some humorous reading.
Well, before getting to the third category you have to learn something useful, and so let's talk briefly about category (1). The entire issue of the mag is devoted to the "mind-body" connection, a worthy subject to be sure. An opening quotation from Craig Lambert's Mind Over Water: Lessons on Life from the Art of Rowing stopped me in my tracks:
"The raw elements of the sport are our teachers: the wind and the water, the boat and its oars, our own bodies and minds...Suspended between liquid and air, we inhabit a transitional zone that opens a window on mysteries hidden from those with solid ground beneath their feet. Sliding between dark and shadow, betweensunlight and he obscure, is the region of discovery..This is the region of learning..In such crucibles, imagination creates the future..."
I truly am enriched by that quotation. It convinced me that almost any activity we engage in can carry lessons for life, if we just are alert.
Then, Salman (now Sir Salman) Rusdie visited the campus early in the Fall and addressed the Opening Convocation at the University. One statement he made about universities and ideas is precious.
"The thing I learned most at Cambridge (UK) was that you should be as brutal as possible toward ideas but as courteous as possible to the people who hold them."
That isn't a bad mantra for those who want mindful living.
Verbal Bloopers and Other Observations
I like these magazines because they also give us a window into our culture. You can often see from professors' interests where the federal grant money is coming from these days; you can tell from the way people talk what the "buzz words" of a discipline or our culture are; you read obituary notices of alums and you learn something about what it means to put together a good life. I found some of the following pretty interesting.
1. Willamette is now engaged in a capital campaign, no doubt the biggest in its history. I think that it is always involved in a campaign. The "update" article said that the campaign started in 2002, but it didn't mention the close date. It could be 2050 for all I know. To date the campaign has raised $100 million, with $25 million raised in a thirteen month "period of unexpected intensity." But, if we do the calculations, to raise $100 million in five years requires $20 million per year in a period of "regular intensity." Thus a typical 13-month period would yield nearly $21 million. Twenty-five million for 13 months doesn't thus appear so "intense''....does it?
Well, what is the goal of the campaign? The article helpfully says, "The $125 campaign focuses on increasing the endowment..." Well, it looks like we are $99,999,875 over our goal. I would call that a true success story.
2. The new class, of 2011, was mentioned. I don't think we call freshmen freshmen anymore at Willamette. I think they are "first-year students." The article managed to skirt this political hot potato by calling them the "entering class." Well, they are a stellar cast, to be sure, but one statistic stopped me in my tracks. "Eighty-one students are from multicultural backgrounds." I paused for a moment on that one. What does that mean? Is it multi-cultural if you grew up as a Fundamentalist but then came to your senses and became a Liberal Christian? Is it multi-cultural if you moved from Alabama to North Dakota in your early days? Why is one multi-cultural of more significance than another so that one set is counted and another is not?
3. Then there are very illuminating articles on services to students with disabilities and the increasing practices of meditation and other forms of "mindfulness" on campus. Nobody connected the dots. Isn't it true that as drug prescription has gone up in our culture, affecting all kinds of young people, that the number of meditation groups has also skyrocketed? Drugs often get you out of your mind and meditation tries to put you back into it. Aren't the two related?
4. Then, there are the misprints or interesting words. Headline. "Ugandan students and teachers make the journey to Salemto learn how to fight for their freedom.." I wondered for a while where "Salemto" was. I thought at first it was a place in Uganda, perhaps a retreat area and that someone from Willamette was covering the story because we had a Ugandan alum. But, silly me. It was just a typo, Bill! The Ugandans actually came to SALEM--that is, right here in Oregon. I guess I missed them.
5. Then there was a message from the interim director of alumni relations. It seems that most of the administration these days consists of interims. But the first line of his note to the community says:
"I'm pleased to return to the University as interim director of alumni aelations."
The word "aelations" has all kinds of possiblities. It could mean he is "aelated" or "elated" to be at Willamette, and not simply "pleased." It could also be a subtle way to invent a new word, one that relates to the Latin word "wing"..which might suggest that he hopes that his tenure as Interim will "give wing" to some pretty good programs. I love it when mistakes open worlds..
6. Mr. Interim Director goes on to mention that they began this academic year with "a lead gift of $1.1 million." Now, it took me a while to figure out how to read that word "lead." Did it describe the material out of which the gift was made or was the word supposed to be pronounced as "LEED"? If it was the latter, I suppose that subsequent gifts, all going toward the grand total of $125, will be "follow" gifts. Or something like that.
Much more could be said. I could quote some interesting lines from some of the obituaries (about one trustee who loved to sing in the car when he made trips) or phrases such as "in place," which seem to be increasingly dominating our speech to each other. But I will stop here. I have always felt that I received from Willamette far more than I ever gave it. Now, with the magazine coming quarterly, that keeps happening.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long