Perspective — September 3, 2014, 8:00 am

On Maleness and Deep Springs College

An alumnus reflects on the possibility of female students at Deep Springs

Deep Springs College has been around for almost a hundred years. In 1917, a crew of about a dozen students, mostly ruddy young things from back east, were brought to a remote desert basin halfway between Yosemite and Death Valley by an entrepreneur and educator named L. L. Nunn. His idea was to form “whole men” — and only men, it being Nunn’s contention that a single-sex institution was the ideal way to achieve his goals — who would be as comfortable at a desk as in the field. He offered the boys two free years of education in exchange for a pledge to devote their lives to serving humanity. The first group built the dormitory by hand.

I’m pretty sure kids built the concrete building where I lived on campus last year, too — a place so cold in the winter that I dragged an oil-filled heater around my apartment like it was an IV pole. Nowadays, though, architects usually draw up the school’s building plans, and professional crews handle the construction. This is but one of the changes to the place over the years. Soon enough will come the biggest one yet: pending a final ruling by the Superior Court of California on a challenge to a decision made by trustees in 2011, Deep Springs College will soon begin admitting women.

There are now seven hundred living alumni of the school, among them aspiring New York congressman and Facebook husband Sean Eldridge, as well as authors William T. Vollmann, Benjamin Kunkel, and, well, me. Last September, I was hired on to teach a semester of creative writing, to live once again in a community of fifty people in a valley the size of Manhattan, at 5,000 feet above sea level. All of the college’s housing is clustered around a main circle, surrounded by mountains that extend another 2,000 feet up. The nearest town lies over a difficult mountain pass. Whether you like the college or not — and I’ve loved it most of my adult life, first as a fresh-faced student from Miami in 1997, less so a few summers ago when I learned the college would go co-ed, and then as much as ever when I returned as a thirty-four-year-old professor — being at Deep Springs has always meant facing a certain level of rugged discomfort. Which: fun, romantic. Which in winter: very cold.

Farm work at Deep Springs College ©© Sean Fraga (Flickr)

Farm work at Deep Springs College ©© Sean Fraga (Flickr)

When I’d driven into the valley in the summer, a farm team of half a dozen students was out irrigating some of the college’s 150 acres of alfalfa, which they would then process into large bales for sale. In addition to their studies, pupils here work at least twenty hours a week in the Labor program, which stands with Academics and Self-Governance as the college’s so-called three pillars.

First thing, I sought out Adam, one of my old classmates and the school’s current farm manager. When we were students together, we called him Cyborg. He could do fifty pull-ups with weights strapped to his chest. Now he’s a father, as I am. We took his girls to the swimming hole where he and I had graduated fifteen years earlier, in a small ceremony for which members of a younger class burned an item from each of us on a raft — things that marked who we’d been when we arrived and that we would no longer need. For me, it was the boots I’d worn when I was dairy boy; for a friend, a copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions; for another, a well-worn early music CD.

Adam and I swam alongside his girls, the older one cutting through the water like  a peach-colored dolphin. Then we walked back to the boarding house just ahead of the dinner bell. I learned that one of my writing students was the school’s butcher. Another was cooking most of the food. We sat down to a meal of pork chops, salad, and applesauce, with milk from the college’s cows. As a student, dairy was my favorite job — I came to love the intimacy of laying my head each morning against a giant mammal’s heaving warmth, and it didn’t hurt that milking made my forearms hard as steel.

Surrounded by young man-boys with ripped T-shirts, dirty hair, and sunburns, I thought about the fact that as students we’d shower together unselfconsciously, that there was a lot of hugging, and that we all achieved a kind of closeness and tenderness that, at the time, felt like a direct and special byproduct of the college being single-sex. Once, we held a wrestling competition in a makeshift ring lit up by the headlights of three pickups. Something like twenty Deep Springers came to my wedding, and I consider at least ten my best friends. I’m protective of what I think I gained. But sitting there at dinner, a father of a daughter, I began to understand the questions — about inequality, purpose, privilege — that came with attending an institution this exclusive and inessential and fragile and ridiculous.

For nearly 100 years, the Deep Springs formula has been simple: students stayed for two years, three at most, and during that time they hired and fired faculty, and constituted a majority of the admissions committee. Faculty typically stayed for a semester or a year, and the cap was seven. A few of the nonacademic staff — there’s typically a ranch manager, a farm manager, a cook, and a mechanic — have lasted a couple of decades, but life here is isolated and repetitive, and the charms of a student-run school wear thin, so most staff log a couple of years and move on. For everything wonderful about Deep Springs, it’s not always easy to live in a place that’s trying to be paradise.

As a student I both dreaded and loved the idea of going into the real world. During a trip to Harvard and other East Coast schools — we needed to transfer to a four-year university in order to complete our bachelor’s degrees — we’d hand-roll cigarettes, strike matches on belt buckles, and ash in our hats, feeling dazzling even as alfalfa fell from our pockets. Now I’d been out for a long time. I’d earned my degree, married, thrived in and then abandoned various jobs in New York. I’d lived in half a dozen cities, including Beirut, Istanbul, and Riyadh. I was a dad.

When the semester got underway, I settled into a routine, drinking coffee at night until I couldn’t see straight, printing out and marking up endless copies of a book manuscript. My wife began a new job in Los Angeles; our daughter started preschool. It pained me that they couldn’t be with me, but they were starting normal lives that didn’t involve social utopias in the middle of the desert. Within weeks, I was going through long stretches of not shaving or changing my clothes. Being alone was wonderful and awful. It afforded me tremendous amounts of time to work. But soon I forgot why and for whom I was working. One night, I spilled beer all over my manuscript. I began to think more and more about isolation, and how males act in the absence of females.

In class, everyone got sick. A tall, reedy guy from Michigan — one of my best students — handed a coughing classmate a lozenge. The cougher, who wore a denim jacket and a natural snarl, ignored the lozenge. His essay that week was called “In Defense of Shitholes.” During the response period, a student from Mali, a former special-forces paratrooper, asked, “What is ‘real America?’ ” We struggled to explain what a shithole was. Later, the butcher told us how, just before class, they’d gone to drop off the guts of a freshly slaughtered cow at the Dead Animal Dump, and the truck nearly fell in. The dump lies in the desert just beyond campus, and at night, coyotes circle the place, howling. When I was a student, I carried a gun and went to class with blood on my hands, too.

What it might mean to become a man at Deep Springs turned into a rather more urgent matter one night, when one of my other students decided to eat a spider. It was a Tuesday night, when the entire community traditionally gathers to hear students give talks, and he walked up to the podium with a hot plate, a cup of oil, and a jar containing a live black widow. When the oil was hot enough, he tipped the jar. There was a sizzle, and then he plucked out the cooked spider. I held my breath, hoping it was dead. Then he ate it (and survived). It was hard to imagine this happening at any other college.

Not long after I’d graduated, a student one year below me died in a tractor accident in the hills above the college. As a result, Deep Springs developed new regulations, covering who could use a power tool, how much instruction was required before a student could drive the backhoe, and the number of students required before a college vehicle could be used for an official trip. The black-widow incident was a rare show of risk. By contrast, in my first few weeks as a student, I was handed a chainsaw and pointed toward a pile of boards. When I hit a nail, the saw kicked back and nearly tore me in half. Whatever we built back then, it was ours. But at least some of what we built could have been better.

On Thanksgiving, I brought out my family for the first time. The meal was astonishing — delicate baked goods, mounds of steaming meat, deep bowls of fresh ice cream. My daughter found a deer’s tooth lying on my porch. She was both terrified and thrilled. “Daddy, is that a dead tooth from a dead animal? And when am I going to die? Daddy?? Tell me!!!” She fell in love with three different students and was overcome with a joy I hadn’t previously seen.

I realized, holding her hand, walking around a campus I’d known and idealized and wanted to protect my entire adult life, that maybe the most basic purpose of Deep Springs was to teach us to welcome challenge, and to do so with grace. Because of how much I’d loved the place, my line had always been this: I don’t want it to change. Deep Springs had been very good to me. I’d learned how to be at home in the field and at a desk. Now, as the father of a little girl, I was ready to see what else it could do.

Single Page
is the author of Friday Was the Bomb, an Amazon Best Book of the Month. He teaches writing at the University of California, Los Angeles and has published essays in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and The New Republic, among others.

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

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