Aaron Pellowski

Jun 232014
 

 In the whole history of everything, a capella music is the most impossible thing to explain to an outsider. It’s deliberately cheesy. It almost always falls short of the original music. The choreography is frequently lackluster, predictable and flaccid. Often, the soloists are neck-craningly inaudible on the freshman-swamped first floor of a frat house, which, despite possessing the stunted acoustical virtues of giant, gritty shoebox, is almost always the site of a capella shows.

By all principles of common sense and ordinary taste, a capella music and its contagious subculture should not exist on the planet, much less at Dartmouth, where accomplished pianists, brilliant opera-singers and the most stimulating flautists in the western hemisphere suffer daily of almost total ignominy, sequestered in the windowless practice rooms located seven miles below ground at the HOP.

And yet I find all my fluorescent common sense of little importance, for I am, at Dartmouth, the most passionate proponent of a capella music under the sun.

Here’s why:

Last Friday, I sat down in the Ticknor room of Rauner Library and gave over an hour of testimony to the Upper Valley Oral History project. I answered, at length and in detail, questions about my experiences at Dartmouth as a freshman, a sophomore, a junior and now, a rogue senior on a mission to never graduate. I gave my two cents on recent events and my take on longstanding trends and changes in my time at this institution. I took advantage of more personal and philosophical questions about exclusion, tradition and community. For this third principle, I could give no better example of a perfect community than the Dartmouth Cords All-Male a capella group.

I grew up in a house full of song and I knew I loved to sing. Other than the occasional kiddy musical, I’d never performed in a formal capacity. So, more than anything, I was beyond excited to be one of a swarm of anxious freshmen in suit jackets flooding into the Hopkins center during orientation. My trip leader, a Cord in the class of 2014, had heard me singing in the woods. “You should audition for a capella Pellowski! We always need more basses. You don’t even have to be that good.”

He didn’t have to ask me to audition, since it was already my number one priority. But like all dreams of the young, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. After forty-eight hours of being passed around like a dipspit cup among more a capella groups than I could even now name, I felt fried, frazzled and a little bit afraid. As is chronically my habit, I had underestimated what large proportions of my nerditudinal classmates had as much talent as I had, in this case, it seemed like every other dude was gifted with great pipes and just an ounce more social aptitude than I had.

At 3AM, walking home from the final round, I was accosted by a skunk outside of Russell Sage, causing me to jump out of my pants in terror and, in my delirium, lose all hope in my chances.

So when, as I made my way to my first college class ever as good as drunk from auditions-induced fatigue, the sight of a Cord from the Class of 2013 approaching me on the Green caused me to just about pee myself.

“Hey. Welcome to the Cords!”

WHAT.”

“Uh, I said welcome to the Cords.”

“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!! THANK YOU!”

I made it to Italian One with an extra helping of bang and bounce in my bottom. I recognized a dude down the row from me from the previous night. He’d made it into the Aires. It was with great mutual smugness that we shared our success stories, taking ten-story-tall pride in our new membership to the most uncool thing to which either of us would ever belong.

There are hundreds more stories that unfolded following that day, many of which would do more representative justice to the experience of being in a Dartmouth a capella group. But those first few hours, in which I was privileged with my longest-lasting foothold in the Dartmouth community, have become increasingly endeared to me as I look over my shoulder at the past three years.

Winter tour is a blast, rehearsal is high-pressure, frat shows, despite their rampant audio flaws, make you feel like you’re in NSYNC and it’s still 2002. But as I sometimes find myself telling faces befuddled at the notion that it all could still be worth six hours a week of rehearsal, music is really only about 2 percent of what an a capella group does.

More than anything, the Cords have been the best friends I’ve had in my entire life. Something about the intimacy of vocal harmony, or the painstaking process of working to turn sheet music into sound, or just the hundreds of quiet hours packed snug in a car going straight down a New England road, headed to a five-song show at who-knows-which-college-it-is-tonight, has led to a flourishing little world of twentysomething twentysomethings with backgrounds as diverse as a bowl of Gardetto’s.

Whether I am stressed, ecstatic, depressed or ready to toss back a few Cold Ones, the Cords are the Minute Men, the First Responders, the surrogate brothers, dads and moms. We can all make each other laugh ourselves to pieces, and we have, on evenings of safe, unshamed emotion and honesty, shared our most tender dreams and fears.

From freshmen year on, it was a Cord I talked to on Facebook at 2am, home from the frats, distraught at an unreciprocated crush, Cords I met up with in Boston to smoke hookah and shoot the breeze about love, rap music, phil classes and finance. A Cord let me sleep over in his room for days during the darkest winter of my life, when I was too sad to sleep alone, and its with a Cord that I’m currently living off-campus all summer.

I can’t speak for other a capella groups, though I trust they could tell similar stories. And I know that even if it’s only one of many forces, music has a power to unify and cohere people into communities in a way that dispels the tenacious restrictions of class, masculinity, anxiety, affiliation, religion and ideology. You learn that any voice, however excellent it is in its own right, is brightened and empowered by the empathetic addition of another voice seeking harmony. Unconsciously, the lesson translates from melody to humanity, and you find all the calcification of feeling towards other people drop away.

Whatever I’m saying here is probably too far-fetched or, worse, even too obvious to claim any profundity. But I can’t grasp any better explanation for how I feel about the Cords. Maybe this gives words to a sensation that somebody reading this has had before in one way or another, or maybe I sound like I’m advertising an experiment for those folks just starting, untethered, on their undergraduate exploration. But throughout all its neverending, zany nonsense and tutti frutti narcissism, being in an a capella group has taught me one true thing: that to create a true community, you must treat people like music.

@Now

 Posted by at 7:35 pm  No Responses »
Apr 252014
 

When my brother told my family that he’d been offered a spot in the Dartmouth Class of 2018, I leapt out of my chair and threw myself on the floor, crying like I hadn’t done since I was eleven. For months, he and I had poured hundreds of hours into perfecting his early decision application. While he was hard at work filling up his resume with diverse, Herculean accomplishments, I was in Rome on the Classics FSP, coming home exhausted from 12 hour museum-days and spending all my spare time drafting and re-drafting my Peer Recommendation letter. I love my brother more than anything, and I wanted the very best for him.

He got it.

 

Prospective 18s: I want the very best for you, too. Right now, or “@now,” as we say down here in the Upper Valley, you’ve got some really sexy choices in front of you. When, lips bit, I sent in my final decision to matriculate to Dartmouth, I did so with the knowledge that I was forever forgoing some terrifically sexy choices myself. I didn’t know what I was getting into. But as a junior who’s only got three more terms on campus ahead of him, I think I know a thing or two.

 

Through all my time here, I’ve been the victim of heartbreak, hangovers and more homework than you could shake a stick at. But the grass has never, not once, seemed greener on the other side.

 

I might be the last person you’d expect to lose sleep over the distress and panic I currently feel at the prospect of graduating and leaving Hanover behind. I’m an ultra-snarky, misanthropic kid on financial aid surrounded by men and women who’ve never had less than their heart’s every last desire. I’m an unaffiliated student at a school where frat life is king and a double major in two humanities disciplines when a couple of econ courses could have landed me a six-figure job as soon as I stepped off the graduation stage.

 

But, nonsense or not, I am that person. At Dartmouth, I’ve had immense freedom to create a personalized experience backed with titanic, inspired force. Tapping into nothing more than the intellect and enthusiasm of my peers, I’ve built two distinct clubs from the ground up. I’ve spent half a year in Europe at a cost to me that could barely fill a FoCo cup. I’ve worked as a research assistant under the generous guidance of the foremost expert in the field I treasure the most.

 

I’ve made the best, smartest, closest and most affectionate friends of my entire life.

 

I have also been the indirect beneficiary of all Dartmouth has to offer that doesn’t quite match my own interests. For the past three years, I’ve known that Greek life isn’t for me. To be fair, I heard some fantastic lies about how dudes in certain frats were jerks, or losers, or any number of awful things. But, over time, I’ve found myself upstairs in those same houses, talking to brothers and feeling overwhelmed at how astoundingly nice and kind these supposed toxic villains and agents of evil were, when they had nothing to gain by treating me with complete respect and decency.

 

Now, you’ve got some truly sexy, daunting choices on your plate. I want you to make the choice that’s best for Dartmouth, but more so, best for you. If your life-policy is to show up and let all the goodness of the world drop into your lap, Dartmouth can be a pleasant home for you. That, however, is a promise that only reaches so far. If, on the other hand, you’re the type that tirelessly seizes the freedom and riches of a community that will pull your ambitions and dreams out of impossible and into reality, choose Dartmouth. Choose it @now.

 

Apr 152014
 

Freshmen: a delight to behold

All newly freed from the mold

Of those halcyon days

of highschooler haze

Most of them eighteen years old!

Sophomores: they know the rules

Or think they do, surely not tools

Who crush P-Sets all night

The Op-Eds they write

Leave readers in puddles and pools

 

Juniors: hold terror at bay

Graduation a few terms away!

What will Bridgewater say

Of my resume?

When I drop it on Dartboard today?

 

Seniors: begin to diverge

Experience emotional surge

I LOVE DARTMOUTH” or

“The Green I’ll always abhor”

To each his own method of purge

 

 

Mar 272014
 

DEAR EIGHTEENS: 

I’m going to tell you how to be the best Worst Class Ever.

Unlike my boy Alex Libre ‘16, who just confessed his timid inability to share the secrets of the Dartmouth Experience, I’m about to mother-bird some heaping helpings of “awesome, all-encompassing, inspiring advice for what to expect in the next chapter of your life” straight into your peeping little freshman maws. Chew slowly and savor it.

Step One: Crack open six root beers, pour them them into plastic cups (extra foam), garnish with a dirty ping pong ball. Now drink them all in under 10 seconds. Now read everything you can on the internet related to lacrosse, heteronormativity and Dr. Seuss. Done? Congratulations, you’ve just won Dartmouth in miniature.

It should actually look quite like this.

Step Two: Recognize that getting into Dartmouth isn’t the greatest accomplishment of your entire life. It’s a big deal, but honestly, not THAT big. When, in hoary ages past, former President Jim Kim lifted my glowing application from the stack of MAYBE’s and deposited in the sacrosanct vessel of YES’s, he did not automatically confer upon me some guaranteed future of prestige, fanfare, endless cash, Keystone and yachts festooned with pretty girls and first edition English novels. If I want those things (and I DO) I have to get them for myself, starting on Day One. Your freshman grades and your freshmen friendships matter more than any others because they will cut you the deepest, infecting you with the personal standards that will predominate internally for the next four years. So amid the neon Bacchanalia of Trips and Orientation, remember your mission here is simple: work hard and do great things.

Pictured: Former President Jim Kim, notably not the sole architect of AP15′s success.

Step Three: Develop a Stockholm Syndrome-y relationship with some place. I like the 1902 Room, the Graveyard, and the cluster of pine trees behind Zete. It’s nice to have a home base where you can collect your thoughts and settle down from time to time.

A nice place to take a summer afternoon nap. I’ve literally rested in peace here.

Step Four: Don’t be evil. For the love of Jove, please don’t do evil things. Every once in a while, step back ask yourself “Is what I’m doing evil? Am I setting a good example? Are my actions hurting other people?” Recent research has suggested that just asking this question of oneself once per week could prevent upwards of 17.69% of all evil.

Pictured: Pure evil. Immorality is B-Side anyway.

Step Five: Do all the stupid traditions, but make fun of them the whole time. Ledyard Challenge, Dartmouth 7, Touch The Fire, pictures with Keggy. Trust me, these are all monumentally idiotic, banal, hyped-up endeavors. But do them anyway. Self-congratulatory Outsiders have nothing to be proud of. Don’t fall prey to their siren song either. Participate, but make sure your actions always contain a healthy infusion of irreverence.

Pictured: Ivy League Students.

Final Step: (This is the most important step of all. Steps 1-5 were just foreplay.)

Make someone your hero. So much of the good that’s done at Dartmouth takes the form of protest, criticism, calling out injustice and evil. This is important, but we constantly forget to make space for worshiping the people who do creative, not destructive good. There are many vague and uninspiring institutions in place at Dartmouth for celebrating others, and you can join them if you like. But take the time to find people whom you can love and revere for their own sake, and on your own terms. By far the greatest spans of happiness I’ve enjoyed in the past three years are owed almost entirely to my relationships with just a few people. A 12, a 14, a few 15s and a 17. These people kept me from drowning and irreparable collapse into the dark, arctic, alcoholic slushhole that Hanover sometimes feels like. Find these people for yourself. You will never forget them.

Where have all the good men gone? And where are all the gods?
Where’s the street-wise Hercules? To fight the rising odds?

That’s just about all I got for now. If you didn’t really read this whole post, the basic gist is: drink root beer, don’t be evil, stay sassy.

Beloved 18s, I want you to realize you have big shoes to fill. Every year in late spring when the seniors graduate, Dartmouth loses a thousand geniuses, beauty queens and individuals of indomitable irony in a burst of early summer fire. By fall, the phoenix of Dartmouth will swallow you all and resurrect itself anew from amid the ashes. It is up to you to make life beautiful.

Extra Credit: Say hi to my little brother Braden Pellowski ‘18. He’s a teeny bit shy but is in desperate need of love and friendly affection. Anything from a smile to a Collis coffee date would really boost his whole day!

 

 

Mar 132014
 

Among many other things, this term has been a term of bananas. As a food that’s eminently portable, fun to eat, provocatively-shaped, available at every one of Dartmouth’s dining locations, bananas have long exerted an occult power over me that reached its climax in the early days of Winter Term, 2014. I’ve been eating bananas non-stop, in and out of class. As I write, a pile of peels sits next to me on the desk, looking for all the world like the corpse of a black and yellow octopus. I’ve also discovered that a banana makes for a handy apparatus for gesturing vigorously at a fellow student who’s just said something out of line, or as microphone when conducting a hard-hitting interview with an important campus figure. I’ve littered my text messages with the banana emoji, in singles and pairs, leaving my conversational partners to wonder at the tantalizing meaning of my messages.

I have even come to identify with a particular banana, whom I met mid-way through January. On the back porch of the Black Visual Arts center, which I’ve passed each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning on the way to class, lies a banana. This miserable specimen of fruit has escaped custodial eye, stranded endlessly on the chilled cement like a high-potassium Ariadne. As the temperature has swung up and down, the banana has repeatedly re-frozen and thawed, causing its process of putrefaction and blackening to get drawn out agonizingly over a period of ten weeks, that should have lasted no more than ten days.

When I wake up in the morning, the first thought that enters my head is “Humanity is doomed. You are doomed. Facebook, yolo, Real Housewives, Kindles, Upworthy, Miley Cyrus…these are the reasons God doesn’t talk to us anymore.” With these grim and menacing thoughts clouding my mind like a wreath of bats, I shuffle out of Topliff and in the direction of class.

image

[Pictured: Aaron Pellowski '15]

But then I catch sight of the banana. “Hello again, banana,” I think. “You’re looking a little limper than last time. If it weren’t for the hard cold air, I’m sure your odor would be sweet and violently pungent. It is only your lack of segmentation that distinguishes you from a turd in the eyes of passers-by. But I know what you really are, on the inside. And I’m proud you’ve survived.”

This has been a trying term for me, but like the banana, I’ve resisted rotting into a dark puddle of despair. In all seriousness, the banana hasn’t been more than a symbol, but it is a symbol for the real phenomenon of collective angst. We here at Dartmouth understand ourselves to be high-achievers, the smartest cookies in the box. We set preposterous expectations for ourselves, seemingly for no better reason than testing the limits of our raw human capacities. Happiness, self-care, therapy of any form: these aren’t just forms of giving up, they’re forms of selfishness. I was sick for nearly a third of this term, but I still attended class with an ear infection that made it almost impossible to hear. I wanted my friends to see me persisting in spite of my difficulty, just in case any of them were dangerously close to completely giving up. We inspire each other with our success, but we grasp our collective humanity when we suffer.

This term saw superhuman achievement on the part of our student athletes at the Olympics and the Ivy Heptagonals. As a community, we enjoyed explosive, unenvious pride at their accomplishments. But this in this same term, we lost a son, and then a daughter of our family. And another daughter was made the victim of unspeakable violence that came from within our own ranks. It was in those wordless hours when we brought our fists of celebration down to our hearts and held them there, feeling the ebb and throb that remind us that we are human, and that we owe each other everything.

 

The 1902 Room

 Posted by at 5:41 am  No Responses »
Mar 072014
 

Flanking the lawn before Baker Library is a large, one-room building of two-story proportions. It’s called the 1902 room and it’s always open. It contains about ten long, broad wooden tables, each paired with a portrait of an important figure from the college’s history. Their expressions range from stern and stoic to friendly and bemused. They’re all men. One of them is named Craven Laycock.

When, just before 2AM hits, Baker’s PA system plays its startling announcement that the facilities proper are about to close, a moribund train of book-weary students begins to shuffle into the 1902 room and set up shop for the rest of the night. While some prefer Novack cafe, also a 24-hour space, and others retire to dormitory study rooms, the atmosphere of the 1902 room sustains a ghostly appeal to others. Just why is an engima. I don’t know whether the 1902 room has anything like a self-aware culture surrounding it, though some of us talk about it like it does. But the mere mention of a night spent laboring in the 1902 room evokes near-universal recognition of what is considered a thoroughly punishing experience. There is no bathroom, and only one door leading to the outside. When that door opens, especially during the winter, a gale of freezing air enters the room, causing students to grimace and pull their pants further down over their ankles. The 1902 room is quiet, but not silent, so while conversation is instantly met with a host of hostile turned-around stares, the littlest cough or spurt of flatulence is audible to all. There is a ceaseless chorus of chair-creaking and inadvertent sighing. The lights, which never turn off, are so bright that in the brain of the sleepless they emit an oppressive noise of their own.

Last winter I took Intensive Ancient Greek, a choice which, while intellectually rewarding, turned out to be titanically masochistic. In order to succeed on the final exam, I spent the last weeks of the term camped out in the 1902 room surrounded by a books. 20 half-empty coffee-cups and unwashed clothing. I only left to go to class and eat once a day. I slept in sporadic cat-naps on a couch near the front of the room beside a defunct fireplace. Over the course of that period, I developed a supernatural, delirious attachment to the 1902 room which, though it was forged in agony, gave rise to great feelings of nostalgia the following term when I was abroad.

Finals period looms like a mouthful of fangs and once again I find myself serving out huge terms in the 1902 room. This space represents one component of my Dartmouth experience that, compared to the first five I’d name off the top of my head when asked, is relatively minor. Nevertheless, it is one I’ll never forget, and one which, as I reflect on it, has a unique sheen to it. As a budding freshman, I would have never anticipated forming this kind of queer relationship with an otherwise uninteresting room. And that raises a question which we should all be asking ourselves as we undertake and begin to exit the turbulent, four-year project of college: what familiar things have become strange, and what strange things familiar?

 

Feb 262014
 

In this century, college is marketed to prospective applicants as a paradise of diversity. In and out of class, undergraduates hope to gain exposure to a wide range of perspectives that harmonize with and challenge the experience they accumulated before entering higher education. This can come in many forms: racial, intellectual, political, artistic, athletic—you name it.

But there’s another kind of diversity we don’t talk about as much, though its value is immense and shouldn’t be elided. This is what I’d call personal diversity, and it’s something you can pick up a lot of at Dartmouth, provided you’re willing to put a little work in.

Personal diversity means entertaining many different kinds of experiences in your own, daily life. It goes beyond the ordinary diversity in which we find ourselves surrounded, like it or not, with people who offer us counternarratives. Personal diversity means filling our days with activities that don’t match up with what we normally do, or did when we were in high school.

Here’s an example of how I try to achieve personal diversity, all drawn from the past four hours. I’m a philosophy and classics major, and I sing in the A Capella group called the Dartmouth Cords (arguably Dartmouth’s best-looking all-male A Capella group). If I wanted to, I could fill my hours, minutes and days with just going to class, rehearsal, doing homework, and taking the occasional nap.

But when there’s so much else to do at Dartmouth, that can never be enough. At 7pm, I went to a showing of an avant-garde film in Thornton Hall with members of my Philosophy of Art class. At 8pm, I drove into West Lebanon with ten members of the Dartmouth Classics Society (of which I’m the co-founder) and saw the new 3D movie, Pompeii. We relished in inaccuracies and hypertheatrics of the movie: overall a really splendid time.

I came back and went straight to the library, where I confirmed an appointment to meet with a preeminent scholar of Greek sexuality to whom one of my own professors referred me. Then I went to get a tea and a couple bags of chips from Novack Cafe; on the way I picked up the latest edition of Apologia, Dartmouth’s (extremely well-done) publication on Christianity and Theology. I’m not a Christian, but I love to read my peers’ work.

Just the same, as I stood in line, I chatted with a writer for the Dartmouth Review, Dartmouth’s notorious conservative-leaning newspaper, about the recent ‘Freedom Budget’ proposal that was sent out to campus, a document addressing a multitude of perceived deficiencies in Dartmouth’s academic and social atmosphere. I’m not a conservative, but i enjoy hearing what smart people have to say about campus climate, even when I disagree.

Now I’m back in the 1902 room, jamming away at my research for the Classics Department and drinking my tea.

The story of my evening could have been: I went to the library, did some homework, and went to bed. But that would be the story of someone who either didn’t know –or didn’t care–about the swarm of little opportunities Dartmouth provides to make each bit of our day a little more sparkly. By some degree I’ve enhanced my personal diversity today, and I’m going to try to do the same tomorrow. I have Dartmouth to thank.

pompeii-movie-poster-2

A scene from the new ‘Pompeii’ movie. A real thrill.