tension is unbearable, I hope it lasts


One day in 1987, Chip, Jon and I were exiting our Manor to the Machine: The Economic Shaping of Medieval Europe class, and we all agreed that we were attending college at the most boring time in history. We’d heard stories of the 1960s (which is why Greenlaw Hall at UNC has barricades for the National Guard) and then the drugged out/kegs-in-the-dorm days of the 1970s, and we knew, even while we were in the moment, that our particular history was going to be regarded as dreadfully dull.

Even in high school, years before, the general feeling was the “History” was something that happened to someone else. The biggest two events of the time were the Challenger explosion and Chernobyl (and I guess Iran-Contra, but if you’re digging that far, you’ve already lost me).

We tried our best to liven things up in the end of the Reagan era (and the beginning of Bush I) by throwing parties at the Lodge that harkened back to the days of bacchanalia, but Chapel Hill was drifting off into the sunset days of its old village charm. I don’t even remember if I voted in 1988, even though it was the first time I could.

I mention this because we were discussing the Rodney King riots in the car today, and remembering what a bizarre shift this country took. I guess the real change happened in late ’89 when the Berlin Wall fell, but by the time Nirvana came out with “Nevermind,” things began to really speed up in our lives.

This is a brief outline of the Chapel Hill/World at Large itinerary:

1989 – Berlin wall falls

1992 – Rodney King riots paralyze L.A.

1993 – O.J. Simpson “Trial of the Century”

1993 – Chapel Hill band scene goes nationwide

1993 – Grateful Dead plays two shows at Dean Dome

1993 – Intimate Bookshop burns down, three other places as well on the same night

1993 – National Champions! (had to throw that in there)

1994 – “Generation X” hoopla in full swing

1994 – Wendell Williamson kills two in gun rampage on Henderson Street

1996 – Dot-com mania takes over Research Triangle Park

1999 – Y2K hysteria

2000 – Dot-com bubble bursts, all of us out of work

2001 – 9/11 attacks change entire country

2003 – War in Iraq

I know that’s a mixture of the mundane, miraculous and tragic, but that’s the hodgepodge of history you actually experience when the local and global play upon your psyche.

It’s funny how those things play out: the O.J. verdict seemed like a direct cause of Rodney King (obviously, O.J.’s a murdering bastard, but when he was found not guilty, my 25-year-old brain thought it was a nice “fuck you” to whitey). My brother Sean moved to Chapel Hill in fall ’93 because of the insanity that had swirled around the campus that spring.

It’s a messy timetable, to be sure, but one thing is certain: for the last fifteen years, things have been happening. We even had another space shuttle blow up and everyone had too much whiplash to care.

During the last election, some pundits thought that Americans were suffering from “history fatigue” and would reject Bush and his neo-con weltpolitik in favor of less rash civilization-remaking. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but I confess I miss the days when we merely concerned with nuclear Armageddon rather than getting nickel-and-dimed to death with the world’s axis changing every other year. Jon, Chip and I had wished for a little more excitement in our college years, but like Oscar Wilde said, the Gods punish us by answering our prayers.


Jon, me, Bud in NYC, summer 1986

12 thoughts on “tension is unbearable, I hope it lasts

  1. Laurie from Manly Dorm

    What — no baby feet today?
    The three of you look like skinny babies in that photo!
    What about the demise of the Soviet Union in your timeline? I was in law school and completely out of touch with the real world from 1990 – 1993, and I remember emerging out from under my books and the bar exam to wonder what on earth had happened to all the Cold War worries that shaped our childhood. With that threat gone, I remember feeling as though everything was “OK”, albeit very boring. 9-11 showed me what an idiot I was for daring to think such a thing.
    Here in Maryland, when you travel on the Baltimore Beltway, you are often greeted with an overhead highway alert sign that says “TERROR ALERT TIPS, CALL XXXXX”. Needless to say, while I was living large in Chapel Hill, I never envisioned a future in which that would become commonplace. Helen has just started to read, and we had a long discussion about what exactly the highway sign meant. It made me wish that our kids could have a little bit of that boring time that we enjoyed through our early twenties.

  2. Bud

    O! My dying perm! What an embarrassment!
    So… if this is WWIish, then over Lucy’s childhood we’ll-
    -fight the so-called “Global War on Terror” to a half-assed end with lots of loose ends;
    -enjoy a period of economic prosperity and hedonistic excess; while at the same time, those preachy, moralizing Baby Boomers will get their act together (shudder);
    -see 9/11’s other shoe drop with an explosive bang, and our entire society will respond to it effectively; this time, United We Stand will be reality.
    Frankly, I’m looking forward to the next 1950s, which will follow the successful resolution of our next Great Crisis, whatever it may be exactly.
    Then we can finally become the pipe-smoking, curmudgeonly old geezers we’ve always wanted to be.
    Good times, good times…

  3. mindy

    My first year at Columbia, I heard about the secret tunnels connecting several of the university buildings, originally built for the Manhattan Project. The walls were covered with graffiti from the student uprising of ’68, and I remember thinking, “Man, shit was HAPPENING then.” In a strange way, the graffiti made it more immediate, more real; which in turn made the current campus goings-on seem trivial, colorless and small, by comparison.
    Though I did get to see the Chili Peppers play the Library steps during their sweatsock tour. Yeah, it’s a different type of history; sometimes, though, it’s the more important one.
    On another note, have you seen the previews for the Tim Burton remake yet? Nothing short of ghastly. Almost as ludicrous as Van Sant’s remaking “Psycho.” Christ, don’t these guys have anything better to do than these ego-driven regurgitations of something that was well-night PERFECT the first time around?

  4. oliver

    Was that while they were still the Medium Hot Chili Peppers? I think that was my favorite period. Ian, I’d like to think you’re on to something, but part of me wants to leave history to the tenured, mostly white and male historians. Also I’m still waiting for the decade I feel comfortable to discuss. The Hair, the Hair!

  5. jordi

    ian, i took that exact same class (manor to machine) in 1996! the title is just about the only aspect of it i can remember.

  6. scruggs

    A couple of additions to your calendar for Chapel Hill world:
    1990-Harvey Gantt/Jesse Helms Senate Race. I was a Freshman coming from a very conservative SC household thinking Strom was the man, later realizing he was The Man. Anyway, Just an amazing, tight race that unfortunately went the wrong way, but had the campus energized.
    1991-first Iraq war, cancelled State(?) game
    1992-some pro-Clinton college tour came to town (can’t remember name) but it had Wonder Woman and Richard Masur.
    Also, Hector’s burned down somewhere in there.
    1994-200th anniv of univ, Clinton speaks at univ. day
    1995? Phi Gam house fire, 5 killed
    1997?-Dean retires
    It was great when the Dead came. Franklin Street was turned into one big preconcert tailgate, just like the parking lots of the shows. What a fun atmosphere, and the town freaked and never let them back!

  7. cullen

    I’ll never forget when fellow Haywood County native Wendell Williamson went on his shooting spree in Chapel Hill. We were living and teaching in Durham at the time. It was just like the Olympics bombing; almost everyone you knew from either Chapel Hill or Atlanta could tell you they’d been in the exact same spot where the bombing/shooting occurred a day or week before the actual event. Scary shit.
    Hey Dad, Lucy in the sky w/diamonds on the soles of her pretty-foot soles. Every day is a papa’s blessing and a blast. Live and lap it up. Goo.

  8. cullen

    …”pretty-footed shoes” I meant, w/gratuitous apologies to Paul Simon and Sgt. Pepper’s Band.
    I smell a stinky.

  9. KTS

    “With the Baby Boomers so much in control… I had hoped that generation’s vision would be a lot more Pepperland.”
    In the innocence of my youth, it was not a matter of hoping for Pepperland. I believed that the Psychedelian religion (getting stoned) would transform life into Pepperland! (I still do.) But some Swine, who may also be Baby Boomers, manipulated by the Greatest Generation (yawn, Sociology 101), staked their inheritance on this *so* not happening.
    Thus the drug laws, mandatory minimums, etc.
    It will take time. But the shift from the unstoned to the stoned will Whirl Your World..
    It’s the politics of the centuries, baby!

  10. lyle

    the oj simpson verdict a nice fuck you to whitey?!
    two people, one a PARENT of two children, were BRUTALLY murdered. their killer roams free and enjoys a spot of golf whenever he fancies.
    the verdict was a fuck you to the devastated survivors (i.e. the motherless kids as well as close family and friends) and only that. it’s a crime that race relations at large affected the jury’s decision on this case — a case that had nothing to do with racial climate and everything to do with one man’s uncontrolled anger.

  11. oliver

    “the verdict was a fuck you to the devastated survivors…and only that.”
    We have no control over what events symbolize to others.

  12. Ian

    Lyle- In the particular, yes, O.J. is a fucking monster. But in the moment, when I was 25 and even more furious and irrational than I am now, that’s the way I felt about the race issue. Oliver’s right, even if it’s wrong.
    (I slightly changed the entry to make that clear)

  13. eric g.

    Ian, your rolled-up white pants are awesome! You look ready to step onto the set of a mid-80s romantic comedy in which a teen follows a seemingly impossible-to-get supermodel type through a major metropolitan area, simultaneously ignoring the increasingly fervent advances of a less-supermodelish but still attractive girl that he grew up with. (There were at least ten of these, most of which starred Demi Moore.) I remember the day Wendell Williamson went nuts in Chapel Hill. I was a courier at a law firm in Raleigh at the time, and I got sent to Chapel Hill on a run, arriving about two hours after the shootings. Traffic was stopped and helicopters circled overhead. Not the average day in Chapel Hill.

  14. oliver

    I liked it better before the change. This was the public verdict about which we talked about “playing the race card” and which split public opinion more as less along race lines. So it’s an empirical fact that most African Americans got the justice they wanted from the historically white-dominated justice system, and I believe it’s also an empirical fact that most African Americans saw that as a reversal of a trend of judicial malpractice against blacks. I don’t know if it was a conscious “fuck you” or an unconscious “fuck you” or simply an accidental “fuck you” that you see the ant sized shapes of people spelling out from outer space, but it’s irrefutably a “fuck you to whitey,” and very possibly a deserved one, even though it may (as I fervently believe) have been better to find OJ guilty.

  15. oliver

    So to translate my original reply to lyle: “We have no control over how people in space interpret the patterns we spell out. The pattern may well spell out ‘fuck you whitey’ to them.”

  16. lyle

    (i just got back from a long weekend away, so only now am i seeing oliver’s and ian’s replies to my oj dealio.)
    oliver, o wise one, you’re right, you make a good point. of course there was no one way to interpret the verdict (or anything, for that matter!). your second comment was also very insightful. (by the way, i believe whitey deserves a huge fuck you, but i’m hoping for it to be more along the lines of a massive african american boycott of all things owned by rupert murdoch, philip morris or similar, or electing an accurate reflection of african-, latino- and asian-heritage populations to US congress and senate. not sexy options, but effective long-term.)
    ian, i’m sorry to have sounded so indignant and self-righteous. of course at the time the verdict felt like a resounding fuck you to whitey and the establishment. my knee-jerk reaction was due to my perspective today as a mom. i identify with the murdered mother, NOT because she was “white” like me, but because i hope my children never (knock wood) have to deal with something as horrific as what her kids did.

  17. oliver

    Gosh, that was a wonderful turnaround–and boy, is that rare in blog-land. Thanks, lyle, for crediting me with wisdom. Swell we’re all friends again! Must be that soothing penumbra of sincerity that emanates from Ian’s blog.

  18. jon

    Haven’t checked in here in a while. Just read Salem’s comment above, which made me laugh out loud for, like, 30 seconds.

  19. Bud

    Well, to answer Salem, I’d say it’s because we’re always so, y’know — fresh and full of life…
    Now more than ever, we’re New ‘n’ Improved!


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