Chapter Four: Deep in the Valley (Sophomore Year)

Get the whole story. Read Chapter 3: Leaving the Nest

The remainder of my time as an undergraduate student at Carnegie Mellon is probably my most prolific period (as a songwriter) so far. Between the summer of 1983 and the summer of 1986, I completed and recorded fifteen songs either alone or with friends. It was also the loneliest time of my life.

I ended the last chapter with the conclusion of my freshman year, noting that I had survived. I did pass all my classes, but struggled like I’d never struggled before.
I was shy, never asked questions in class and always worked alone. The professors intimidated me and I avoided talking with them one-on-one for fear they’d recognize that I wasn’t smart enough to be in their class.

I made some lifelong friends that year unlike anyone I’d ever met before and enjoyed a series of experiences I wouldn’t trade for the world (I wasn’t planning on using those brain cells anyway).

But over the summer, I forgot all that. I moved back into my old room, slept late, stayed out late, and more-or-less practiced my own form of anarchy.

Let me backtrack and tell you about the dorm lottery. It was the practice (and may still be) that returning students enter a housing lottery. First, the juniors pick numbers, then the sophomores, then the freshmen. As a freshman, I think I selected the number sixteen (out of something like two thousand) and was able to reserve the last single room on campus.

It turned out that the ‘prime single’ was actually a regular dorm room with only one bed. That’s it. Bathroom down the hall, double occupancy on either side. But…I now had a place of my own.

As I entered the fall semester of my sophomore year, my thinking was that I should take advantage of the AP classes I’d taken in high school so I could lighten my class load and give myself the opportunity to catch up. I still didn’t understand that what I lacked was not aptitude, but initiative.

The academic advisor assigned to me by the department (the only professor I HAD to talk to directly) was initially pleased that I was off to such a good start, but soon began to express his disappointment; actually saying to me at one point, “You had such a great head start. Too bad you wasted it.”

I was still hung up on my high school girlfriend and we talked regularly so after I moved in, I convinced her to come visit me during the Columbus Day weekend. Neither of us had a car, so she caught a city bus near her parents’ home and took it downtown. I took a bus from campus and met her there and we rode together back up to Oakland.

To say the encounter was awkward really wouldn’t do it justice. I still don’t know why she agreed to come. We just sat in my room making small talk and repeating our respective arguments as to why we did/didn’t want a monogamous relationship (me on the pro side, of course).

She had only been in college a few weeks, but was already telling me stories about her roommates’ bisexual experimentation and, although she was not specific, her own.
I was repulsed and felt the pain of rejection all over again, but at least I understood that there was no going back now. That encounter was the impetus for the song “Embers” that acknowledges the relationship would never again be anything, but casual.

To me, it felt like time ran out. I walked her back to the bus stop and as her bus pulled away, I already had the bones of the piece in my head.

Now armed with the knowledge that I would have to find someone new to relate to, I took stock of my assets and liabilities: I knew I was a geek. I knew that I spent almost all of my time reading textbooks while listening to music. That didn’t leave much time for meeting women and even then, I had very little idea how to make the most of the time available. So, I fantasized about the coeds around me; rehearsed conversations in my head, but never had the courage to go any further.

This untenable situation was the inspiration behind “Education”. Painfully shy, bookishly inclined, devoid of self-confidence, unrealistically romantic, frustrated and sarcastic.

Late that semester (Fall 1983) or early the next, my sadness and frustration had evolved into anger and resentment. “Free of Lee” is the cathartic attempt to release (or at least express) these negative emotions. I remember the weather being seasonal (wet and cold) and the accompanying discomforts of dry skin and damp clothing. I would have to say the exercise was successful because, although I did still write about loneliness, I was able to stop writing about her.

In fact, I didn’t write anything more that year (at least that I can recall). The fall semester was the academic equivalent of treading water, but the spring semester was different and I had bigger issues on my mind.

I remember mid-terms in the spring of 1984. I remember walking across campus to retrieve my grades. I was hoping I’d done well enough on the mid-term math exam to stay in the fat part of the bell curve. I didn’t. It was the first D I ever had. My uncertainty regarding my academic abilities peaked as my grades bottomed-out. As I walked back to my solitary room to wallow in self-pity, the sky looked ominous. I stopped halfway across the football field, looked up at the sky and said “Go ahead, rain on me.”
It did.

On to Chapter 5: I See the Light