I have one of the oddest faculty — or quasi-faculty — positions at Cornell, as well as one of the coolest. And what makes my job so anomalous also happens to be what makes it so cool. As one of the two guest suite artists, or GSAs, as we are technically known in Ris-speak (a.k.a. “Gizzas”), I work directly for the student body of Risley College.
If the 190 students who live and hang at Risley don’t like the programs — or vibes — I create, basically, I don’t eat.
In this respect, Risley represents one of the last vestiges at Cornell of the once formidable student power movement, of which I happen to be a veteran.
Strange — and cool.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” a friend of mine who attended Cornell in the late ’80s asked me last spring as I prepared to undertake my voyage back to the Hill.
“You know, when I was there [at Cornell], it was a pretty strange place,” my friend said, arching his eyebrows for emphasis.
The now thankfully rewritten Risley web page, with its Tolkien-esque twaddle about jousting and personal growth, was pretty scary, one had to admit. And the job description, too, was sort of hard to chew. What did “create one program a week” mean, exactly?
But what the hell, I figured. It’s only for one term.
So, off I went to Risley Land. And sure enough, on the first day I arrived, a medieval jousting tournament was taking place on the lawn. “Okay,” I sighed to myself, “here we go … ”
Guess what? I wound up having a blast.
To be sure, as is usually the case with interplanetary travel — and no doubt, Risley is a separate planet — there was an arduous period of adjustment as I struggled to acclimate myself to the social and atmospheric conditions on the planet surface. For one thing, many, if not most of the first Risleyites I encountered were disinclined to smile or even to acknowledge my existence, despite the fact that I was their putative “guest.” The long-running weekly Kommittee meetings (yes, it is spelled with a “K,” and no, I don’t know why, although I believe it has something to do with Kakfa) that I was required to attend were also, well, a bit much. My severe hearing impairment didn’t help matters.
“What am I doing here?” I asked myself more than once in the mirror of my capacious, albeit slightly spooky guest suite as I floated through those first few disorienting weeks, like the “Invisible Man.”
The nadir probably came one Saturday night when, surrounded by expressionless Ris-zombies, I did my laundry in the communal room for the first time and had to extract another evidently deceased student’s long-abandoned wash, triggering at least one memory of my student years that I had rather left alone.
“You’ve come a long way, baby,” I muttered.
But then, around mid-fall, I began to feel less like The Other. The number of Risleyites who made eye contact — or even braved an outright “Hi?” — began to outnumber the Thousand Yard Stare crew. A valiant few even began sitting at my table in the Great Hall or even knocked on my open door and asked for help with this paper or project of another.
Something was happening: I was becoming…one of Them.
Meanwhile, the aspect of the position that I had originally found most baffling — its amorphousness — wound up becoming a source of inspiration. As one of the helpful R.A.s put it, the GSA position “is really what you make of it.” This was the meaning of the Risley sanction.
So I kind of ran with it. I created a newsletter for the college. I gave a tongue-in-cheek lecture series on my life and times, “Diary of a Head.” Along with my extraordinarily gifted and helpful fellow GSA, Resident Professional Theater Associate Daryll Heysham, I produced and hosted an enthusiastically attended “Twilight Zone” marathon, for which I did my first Big Red all-nighter since, well, my Cornell undergrad days, when I used to stay up watching reruns of the classic TV show. There was certainly a kind of surrealistic poetic justice to that.
More mystifyingly, one cabin-feverish night I was moved to pen a Risley “anti-cheer” — which three of my equally mad neighbors enthusiastically practiced and performed before an open-mouthed session of the Kommittee. I knew that I was making progress then.
To wit: “Boomalack, boomalack, boomalack abeam!/ Riff-raff, riff-raff, riff-raff ream!/ If skidi, wahoo wah!/ RISLEY RISLEY RAH! RAH! RAH!”
Strangely, I even found myself enjoying Kommittee. After all, for all its occasional tedium, what was Kommittee about but student empowerment? These were real students making real decisions about their lives — and their money. I could dig that!
As I said, it’s been a blast. In fact, I have had so much fun and made so many wonderful friends amongst the Ris-folk that last April I re-upped for a second term, and now am under consideration for a third.
To be sure, Risley is not the Perfect Society. For some reason I have not been able to ascertain, there are still too few minority students at Risley, particularly active minority students. I would like to do something to change that.
Also, someone has got to do something about that student who keeps leaving his or her wash in the machine (I recommend defenestration — with mattress optional).
“Now I understand Risley,” I murmured to myself in the dark last week as I witnessed (and that is the word) my first deeply strange, bravura performance of the college stand by, the semi-annual “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Yes, it’s crazy, but in a nice way.
“So, what’s it like?” my London-cum-Cornellian friend asked me recently.
“Well, it’s sort of like a cross between ‘Animal House’ and ‘Paper Chase,’ with a touch of ‘Fame’ thrown in.”
Nothing strange about it all. In fact, it’s a pretty cool place.