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In the beginning it was never better

27 July 2016 10:42 

It’s hard to know where you are in the arc of things until after the fact.

Louis Auchincloss’s The Rector of Justin tells the story of the founder and first headmaster of a boys’ preparatory school, set in the first part of the twentieth century. Obscure and humble in its origins,  St. Justin grows into an elite institution: hundreds of students, expensive chapels, endowed lecture halls, science labs, and acres of sports fields – one of the most prestigious preparatory schools in the East. One of the characters in the story, Griscam, is a student who attended St. Justin when it was only five years old, with less than forty students, and only six teachers; as an adult looking back on those early days of the school, he writes:

The atmosphere seemed more that of a large happy family than that of an academy…But above all there was a comradeship between the boys, even between those of different forms, which inevitably disappeared as the school increased in size. Dawn must give way to morning, but it was still bliss to have lived in that one. (p. 132)

When you join a team or a school, you might know you are in the early years, but until a certain amount of time has elapsed and  the school or team or thing has grown into something unrecognizable, only then perhaps you might appreciate what you had, when you had it. The benefits are unrecognized  if you are there in the early days, when things are still small, even intimate, when you didn’t know, couldn’t know, how good it was when things were small, before something has become something.

The phenomenon of accidently being in on something early shouldn’t be confused with the self conscious status seeker (“Are you kidding? I switched from Alta Vista to Google in 1967”) or the accidental groupie (“When I was at U V eh in C’ville  I saw DM”).1Roughly translated: While I was at the … Continue reading Nor does this include the painfully self aware young employee at a young small Silicon Valley company, dreaming of disruption and wealth, who flaunts his single digit employee number and pseudo prestigious first name email address (“I’m employee 0.9  and because I was the first Corbin my email is corbin@turniply.com”) – chances are that company will auger into the bad idea tarmac before getting to any real size.2I have been guilty of this false … Continue reading

The swim club

In 2003 I took up surfing – arguably the most magical of sports. Although I surfed in the relatively safe kiddie spots along the coast – Cowells in Santa Cruz or near a town that prefers not to be named in Marin County – it was a rule that all surfers should be competent swimmers.  Therefore in April that year, I joined the Menlo Masters swim club, located on the mid-peninsula (halfway between San Jose and San Francisco),  near where I lived and worked. Not counting the basic instruction from Camp Whitehall on the Mattaponi River (eastern Virginia) when I was eight years old,  I had had no formal swim instruction: I did not know what IM order was, that you should have your thumb up and out first then pinkie down and in on backstroke, that the body should be flat and straight as possible, that there were horrors in the breaststroke kick, and never mind all those things you need to remember when swimming freestyle (it’s like the old joke about the golf swing: never try to keep more than 300 separate thoughts in your mind during your swing, or in this case stroke).

Swimming was another world – all my previous sports had been terrestrial. The workouts were hard in a way I had not experienced – for the first few months I was so absolutely wiped out after an hour in the pool that I felt numb for the rest of the day; some afternoons I took a  nap under my desk.  The only sport that came close to such total exhaustion was cross country skiing, but even that required several hours work compared to the one hour work out in the pool. I usually swam at the noontime work out, but sometimes went to the 7:00am workout, and only made it once or twice to the 5:45am work out – it was unnatural being up and swimming hard at that hour.  Yet none of this mattered – I loved it: there was a funny and unexpected contrast of intensity and spirituality. I wondered why I had not come to swimming sooner, but better late and all that.

The people I swam with were cut from a different bolt of cloth – different sports attract different types and I liked these: anyone who can spend hours a day swimming back and forth staring at the black line at the bottom of the pool is my kind of person, quietly yet fiercely demented. Most swimmers there tended towards middle class and white collar jobs, but not all: one was a retired electric company linesman, another a typical Sand Hill Road venture capitalist. More than any other sport, appearances were deceiving. That old short fat guy over there (he was bald, too, but it seems inappropriate to mention that): he should lose some weight, but for reasons I’m not quite clear on he’s faster than I’ll ever be. That really skinny woman with no muscle and no fat: she cuts through the water like a barracuda and at best I might glance over and see her ankles as she goes by. Over time I got incrementally better and fell into a routine: the same lane at the same work out time (lanes were sorted by speed: lane 1 the fastest, lane 7 the least fast, and sometimes there were sub-groups, for example lane 3a and 3b), usually with the same swimmers: most days Todd (works at SRI) would lead, and after him, for Leslie, Mary, Christian, me, Tracey, and others, the order varied depending on stroke, distance, gear, and other assorted factors. Sometimes we had guests in our lane: one swimmer from a faster lanes came down to our lane to taper for an event, while another was recovering from an injury; one day a pretty young woman in a black one piece suit joined us for a work out – she was blind.

At that time all workouts were run by the founder, Tim Sheeper,  a professional triathlete, with a number of respectable  wins and finishes, and  in 1988 started coaching and had formed Menlo Masters.  He was the rare blend of accomplished athlete and excellent coach. However, Menlo Masters did not have a permanent home, but instead moved around by season between the various and marginal pools maintained by Redwood City. The first pool I swam in with Menlo Masters was Herkner Memorial Pool, rather plain and a little sad, six lanes and twenty five yards long, one end opened to a smaller, deeper area where there was a diving board. If you swam in the lane that bordered the deeper end, you had to be careful not to bonk your head on a corner when doing backstroke. The facilities were aging and dingy.

That first summer Herkner Pool was closed, so Menlo Masters moved to the pool at Sequoia High School, also in Redwood City. The pool there was in better shape than Herkner, and swimming there was pleasant, but the rest of the place felt like it was from the Eisenhower era. Tim continued to coach almost all the workouts, although sometimes there were substitutes: his wife Lisa, also an excellent swimmer, or Rick or Jana – all good swimmers and competent coaches. In the Fall we returned to Herkner, but at one point that pool was not available, so we swam at yet another public pool in Redwood City, Hoover Pool, a place that scared me. At Hoover the water was so chlorinated that it shriveled your skin during the workout – the pool was not well maintained and often closed, and a few years later, a body was found underneath the pool cover, after the pool had not been used or maintained for several weeks (the death was an accident).

In May, 2006, Menlo Masters moved to a new pool in a new city, Burgess Pool and the surrounding facilitates and park had just gone through an eight million dollar renovation by the city of Menlo Park. The main pool was twenty-five yards by twenty five meters, new, clean, chlorine at the right level. For the next few years I swam as often as I could, which was not as often as I would have liked. Where I worked during thos years – Claria, Playlist, and Auctionomics –  were in either Redwood City or downtown Palo Alto, close enough for a mid-day workout. Indeed, for the last two companies, I could take the train into work, walk to the office, then at lunch ride my black Trek single speed to the pool – how good was that? Too good to last, but I did it once.

My last year at Menlo Masters we saw much less of Tim and the feel of the organization was changing – he was busy expanding operations. There had always been an tri-athlete team, and that was taking more of his time, but there were other things in the works: youth swim teams, summer camps and programs, a tennis club annex, and eventually expansion to other pools around the area and even down in San Jose. There were other coaches filling in more frequently, and as the organization grew the intensity felt diluted- the club had grown into something different. If a web site image is worth a thousand words, then here is a then and now:

 The photographer

I attended my own wedding once before, in the Spring of 1999. It was on the traditional side: church, a priest in robes, fancy flowers, formal wear, catered reception, toasts, a swing band, and of course, a photographer.

Six months before the blessed event I got a hold of a Washingtonian Magazine, and there was a write up about weddings and recommendations of professionals to hire, one of which was a former photojournalist who was trying his hand at wedding photography, but in a different way: he brought his photojournalist’s aesthetic to the schmaltzy world of wedding photography.

I liked Matt Mendelsohn right away, meeting him on a winter day at his home outside Washington, D.C. He’s a complete professional, just great to work with. His proposal for wedding photography was simple: he took the pictures in the way he wanted, favoring black and white images (shot in film), and avoiding staged photographs, preferring instead to simply capture the event as he thought best, taken from a variety of perspectives, as if he were covering a news event.  He charged a flat fee (several thousand dollars), and offered no cheesy gold embossed album packages, additional options, or frills. You owned the negatives and the pictures. Of course he did some posed pictures with the various families, took color pictures, too, and was happy to advise you on working with a duplication service for the photographs.

Before he got into wedding photography Matt was a photographer for UPI, working in Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and the Middle East. He eventually became the photo editor for the news section of USA Today. In addition to his photography work he collaborated with his brother, the critic Daniel Mendelsohn, on the book, The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million.

The day itself was a perfect April Saturday, as Spring can only be in the East Coast, especially the mid Atlantic region. Matt’s photos were very, very  good: he makes everyone look as if they belong in the old Calvin Klein Eternity perfume ads – timeless and beautiful. One photograph is especially memorable, but it is sadly in storage in the Unites States: the young kids, from both families on both coasts, have been photographed by Matt on my mother’s front porch (I think they were there already, and Matt simply corralled them into position); they are sitting in two rows, four or five in the hanging swinging chair (that’s how small they were back then), the rest sitting on the floor in front. It’s black and white, of course; among the kids Dane has a bowl haircut, Kelsey is cute in her white dress, Michael is suffering under the tie – but they’ve all cooperated with Matt, at least for a moment, who takes the picture from the far end of the porch, the picture framed on the right by the white clapboard house, one the left by the porch columns,  the floor is flagstone, and the planked ceiling painted robin egg blue comes through as a light grey – it could be 1999 or 1929.

Since then I lost touch with Matt, but I’d occasionally check his website (after he got one going), and clearly, if he’s not exactly an institution, he’s in high demand. I believe his fee is about four times what it used to be, and from his portfolio it’s clear that his clients value him so much that they fly him just about anywhere for their wedding, and whether around the Washington area or elsewhere, the venues are always very posh. Happily back when I needed him Matt was not so well known.

The school

St. Stephen’s was founded in 1944 in a 15 room home on Russell Road in Alexandria. In 1957 the school moved to a new campus, a more traditional looking brick building with several wings, and a couple of labs.  At the time there were about five hundred students covering grades third through twelve.

I started there in the fourth grade and remained until graduation in 1980.

Academics were basic: the usual levels of math and English depending on grade; sciences in high school were biology, physics, and chemistry; language requirements were Latin in grades seven and eight, after which you could take one more year of Latin (thereby satisfying all language requirements), or start at least two years of Spanish or French. Theology was required every even year, and it wasn’t as bad as it sounds: in tenth grade it was more of a comparative religion class, and in the twelfth grade almost a philosophy class. For a few subjects we had an exchange program with our sister school: for AP History they sent over Dr. Norris, while for AP Biology and some of the calculus classes a few of the St. Agnes students came once or twice a week.

Beyond the standard curriculum there were art classes once in a while, and a small room was converted to an art studio – a room in the basement accessible from the back parking lot, and easy to miss. There was some music classes, and we even sang the Pick a Bale of Cotton song – I don’t know how that would go over now. There were some clubs and organizations, a school newspaper, a once a year literary magazine (I published my first poem there), and an annual yearbook. Sports were limited: football and cross country in the fall, basketball, wrestling, and soccer in the winter, track and baseball in the spring. The fanciest equipment we had were some Nautilus machines and a stainless steel whirlpool bath. The quarter mile running track around the football field was as hard as any highway interstate.

Seniors were given a month off in the Spring of their senior year. This was called the Senior Project, and at the end of it we were supposed to turn in an impressive paper. I spent most of my time not doing anything, except drinking, wrote something awful during the last two days, was raked over the coals for it, and passed only out of sympathy of my adviser.  There was a chapel service once a week – in the cafeteria there was a recessed altar and crucifix arrangement, tucked away behind sliding wooden doors.

Because the school was all male, we behaved with a certain latitude not available had the better sex been around. We knew turning one end of  a crutch pad inside out resembled a penis –  a crutch pad is the pink rubber thing that protects your armpit from the top of the crutch. Since someone was always injured from sports, there was no shortage of crutch pad penises. One day walking down the hall, I turned the corner, and David Berg, at that time injured, was holding “his penis” waist high, while Steve Holman was whacking at it with one of his Topsiders, as David made appropriate moaning sounds. It was brilliant and funny and all of us around laughed hysterically until a teacher broke it up.

School was pretty simple: we went to classes and played sports.

In 1991 St. Stephen’s merged with its sister school, St. Agnes. Since graduation I had not been back to St. Stephen’s, but finally returned for my twenty-fifth reunion in 2005. I barely recognized the place, yet I wasn’t necessary surprised by the changes. Not long before the reunion I had received in the mail a glossy brochure, clearly professionally done, expensive, the work of a competent and well funded marketing department. I had seen similar materials like this around Silicon Valley, usually coming from the likes of Apple or Intel – maybe an annual report for shareholders or mar/com materials announcing a new product line. The brochure I received was an expensive paper infomercial about the then CEO/headmistresses, Joan Holden, touting her accomplishment and abilities. While I didn’t doubt the accuracy of any of this information, I couldn’t see the point of it: Holden wasn’t running for re-election, she had been on the job for many years, was expected to stay for on for a while, and was well thought of. Why go to the effort and cost of creating and mailing out this brochure?  This may seem like a small thing, but I can’t imagine anything like this happening with the old headmasters of St. Stephen’s, and it was at this point that I knew the character of the school was changed. It had turned into something.

As hinted in the marketing materials, the school had grown beyond anything imaginable. There are now three campuses: a lower school campus (home of the original St. Agnes), a middle school campus (the former Ascension Academy), and the upper school campus (where St. Stephen’s was). In addition to the previously mentioned sports, there is now swimming and diving, hockey, lacrosse, winter track, volleyball, field hockey (part of this due to the merging of the sports programs for the two sexes). There are six art studios, six music studios, and a performing arts center.  There are courses in Mandarin, National Security in the 21st Century, Honors Jazz Ensemble, and Entrepreneurship and 3D Printing. Outside of classes there are volunteer programs at local soup kitchens, work/volunteer programs in Romania and Costa Rica, and a chance to Skype with students in Morocco.  The track was renovated with a rubberized surface and the upgrade included a steeplechase field (the only steeplechase I ever saw was in Chariots of Fire). Annual tuition in kindergarten is $27, 000 and in the high school is $37,000.

Nothing is forever

The above mentioned people and institutions changed as a result of their success and their growth, and I’ve presented at least two of these with a slightly jaundiced eye. But if I were in living in the Bay Area I’d rejoin Menlo Masters in a second and if I needed a photographer, I’d call Matt. Dawn does give way to morning, but certainly in the case of Menlo Masters and SSAS, both of these offer their students a much richer array of opportunities than ever before, much more so than a smaller organization could have done.

Still, I’d like to think it’s more than nostalgia to miss a place where you could get away with whacking at your buddy’s crutch pad penis.

For the curious: Menlo Swim, Matt Mendelsohn, and St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes.



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