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Taking a Left Turn

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At the Intersections of ‘The Psychology of Empathy’ and ‘The Anthropology of Tourism’

At the Nonstop Institute Commencement in 2009, Al Denman, who always seemed to find the most enlightening things to say even in the darkest moments, said, “There must be something in Yellow Springs water!” People come to Yellow Springs and the College and something just gets into them! 

Indeed we all know that there is an abundance of calcium and iron in the water; enough that I remember a fun summer chem lab with chemistry professor Dick Yalman that compared what YSOH water and distilled might enable a 100-watt light bulb to do! Needless to say, the YSOH20 had that bulb burning bright, and the pure water kept that bulb dark! So much for purity! Although we know that it is the basic science of what happens with ions, perhaps maybe more is happening here! “Antioch-ions!” 

After decades at the College and YS, Al realized something that seemed to be a universal truth! Maybe that is also why many of us have such homing instincts. Or perhaps there may be a hidden magnet somewhere in the Glen or beneath the Main Building. So many of us are drawn to return to Reunions or visit during a cross-country sojourn. Or simply it is that “Transient-mode home!” many of us feel. In the late ’70s or early ’80s, there was an Antioch tee that even said “Next to Mom, I like Antioch best.” That sums some of it up in a few words!

In mid May, I had the pleasure of having some great conversations with recent alums and current students. After some big edits, those conversations became wonderful THANK YOUs to everyone who got the College up and running (and by the way, that bad news we were going to close was this very week in 2007)…and look! Pandemic and all…we are still here and still there (on Co-ops). During this worst of the worst, Antioch College keeps on keeping on. 

In the conversations I had with students, you would more than likely recognize something of your younger self. Everyone spoke of fixing what is wrong in the world or making it a better and healthier place. No one mentioned money, getting a “job,” or the kind of things you might hear at a more conventional place. Everyone was surprisingly upbeat and seemingly okay! Proof that we can have some quality community even in uncertain times. And the bulk of the conversations were random conversations. 

VWP volunteers and villagers Jim Spangler ‘74 and Shirley Kristensen ‘54 work on weeding a South Hall flower bed.

As well as having great conversations in May that week and going to my first Camelot, I bumped into Jim Spangler ‘74 and Shirley Kristensen ‘54, villagers and local volunteers for the Volunteer Work Project. As doubly vaccinated folks and locals, they found a small project rather safely distant and away from students: the Patio behind the giant pine stand by South Hall. They were debating how many pavers high the patio flower bed should be as they pulled last year’s debris and some new weeds from that flower bed! Debate is our favorite sport you know, forget football.

For this Grazing, I was hoping to get some students to talk about how they felt about coming out of the pandemic…sort of a mirror for Commencement…as it might seem like a new beginning for all, but everyone is distracted by academics and finishing up the quarter or their final moment. Soon Div Dance, Colloquia, and Commencement! That clock is ticking, and it is ticking fast! So I understand there wasn’t time for that other conversation.

As my own homing instinct kicked in, I came up this week from Dayton and walked around campus. It was that transitional spring to summer weather moment. Warm and breezy, hit-and-miss showers, giant puffy clouds, lush clover-studded lawns, the perfume of tulip poplar trees and their golden flowers in the air, and fairly tranquil—except the sound of a few bajillion cicadas. A student held their phone out of the window in Birch and had an app that registered the decibel level at 102 or so! Nonetheless the sound was fairly zen-like and grounding!

As I walked from the OKLIBRARY parking lot toward the horseshoe and Main Building, I bumped into Teo Espada, psychology professor. Even though we were super masked, we both felt that comfort of seeing each other again. “So good to see you!” Of course he was carrying an armload of books.

“Debate is our favorite sport you know, forget football.”

Teo has been thinking about developing a course about the psychology of empathy. In this world after we have had writing well, statistics, and all the regular courses like chem, perhaps a course on the uses of empathy could be quite a revolutionary act. 

I saw some students walk around, others swinging on some swings, but with the clouds deepening and the breeze picking up, it seemed like this would be the briefest lap around campus. I waved to some students I knew and again heard, “So good to see you!” 

Campus looked great; the grass cut in diagonal stripes. The sycamore trees around the Horseshoe, which I remember as saplings four decades ago, are now three- and four-stories tall and almost seem to talk to each other. The branches hang and intertwine. A chef’s herb garden outside of North Hall Kitchen was full of purple sage, bronze fennel, yarrow, and oregano! There are a few places where the grass may be a wee bit forlornly long, and some grass is in between the bricks by Main Building, but perhaps some volunteers will remedy that at some point. Overall idyllic and serene even with a background chorus of 17-year cicadas.

A recent Community Day of Service included moving the Bike Shop, cleaning out the Birch storage space, and writing letters to people in prison. In between Div Dance and Commencement, there will be a Juneteenth Celebration as well. Antioch may be one of the first Colleges around to make Juneteenth an official College holiday. The village will also have a Juneteenth celebration at Gaunt Park where many of us have gone sleigh-riding, swimming, or watched fireworks. Yellow Springs still retains its basic eclectic character of Unitarians, Quakers, artists, writers, free-thinkers, but a wee bit of gentrification has added some commuting professionals who see the village as a prized bedroom community for the area. As real estate and rent and Airbnbs have increased, so has the possibility of well-appointed food and drink. Microbreweries, good food, good coffee. Some of us just remember that ole greasy spoon DICK and TOM’s. A village that was so simply proletarian and a wee bit Spartan!

Perhaps as the world re-commences, your homing instinct will kick in. YS is still surrounded by nature and on weekends may be invaded by “tourists.” That reminds me of another course that may come down the pike some day: A recent visiting Anthropology professor and fairly recent alum, Amanda Knaul ’00, has been pondering a course called, “The Anthropology of Tourism”…an interesting subject no doubt. YSOH on the weekends would make a swell field moment to analyze that!

By the way, my brief campus lap included checking on that South Hall flower bed. I did not count the number of layers of debated pavers, but saw petunias and geraniums ready to thrive in the upcoming summer heat on the South Hall patio. I wonder whether there was any debate over what flowers to plant.

Lastly, in one of the student conversations I had had in May, a student was well aware and thrilled that volunteers had deep cleaned and “detailed” the bathrooms in Birch. I guess that the YSH20 that so lights up light bulbs has been flowing through pristine faucets courtesy of some of the villagers on the Volunteer Work Crew.

Div Dance, Commencement 2021, the Virtual Antiochtober Reunion, and maybe 13 or so months from now, an in-person Reunion (fingers crossed). One imagines there might be also be many more “I’m glad to see you” moments. As always, stay in touch!

“A Buffalo Grazing” is a regular feature by alum Steven Duffy ’77, known to many as the Buffalo or simply Duffy.