Monday, May 30, 2011


May 24, 2011

Though I wouldn’t have wished for it, my final days as Anderson Hall Resident would not have been complete without a fire alarm evacuation. Evacuations almost always occur in the small hours of the early morning: today’s was at 5AM. They are announced with ear splitting gongs and flashing strobe lights. Sleepy students (and at this time of the year, a few adults in addition to myself) pour out of our three buildings and stand, sit or lie on the curbs and adjoining grass. At least in the summer months – now – it is not freezing cold.

Some years ago, a friend provided an idea that has helped me lighten this bleak experience – handing out candy. I set aside one of my large salad bowls, filled it with wrapped Reese, Mounds, Butterfinger and Reese Butter Bars, and began distributing the contents to my partially comatose neighbors. Later, I added a flashing red light, borrowed from the back of my bicycle. The way students gravitate towards my light brings to mind the way sacred goldfish in one Kyoto, Japan temple pond gravitate to food pellets that worshippers and tourists provide for them.

Often this now traditional custom lightens the atmosphere. It evokes amused smiles, thank yous and even an occasional “we love you!” A septuagenarian, sarong-clad Professor distributing candy in a bowl festooned with a flashing red light belies customary student images of a “faculty member.” My practice (along with other Dormgrandpop activities) has been mentioned in campus publications, the Washington Post, the Washington Times and an Associated Press news story, several years ago, that received wide national distribution.

This early morning was the same as most until I reached a small group of adults (I assume they were coaches of young women’s field hockey teams who were visiting campus for a competition). One of them, a dark haired adult woman with oversized glasses accosted me as I passed by. “Please don’t offer candy to our students!” she said firmly.

I was not only nonplussed; but also irritated – so surprised at this first-ever reaction to my largesse that I simply said nothing and walked away. Soon, the bells ceased and we returned to our rooms for a few minutes of sleep before the workday began. But I did not forget the incident.

Later, I had to opportunity to reflect on my reaction, with the realization that, after several years of meditative practice, my journey on the path towards attaining altruistic compassion remains a long one. Instead of remaining silent, I could have expressed thanks for this concern with her student’s well-being. I could have asked that she identify her students so I could be sure to skip over them (perhaps with an explanation). I could have asked her to recommend more healthy snacks that I could provide during the next evacuation. I could have sought to enroll her as my partner in distributing them. Instead, I simply felt irritated and walked away. The incident, including the irritation, remained with me. The Dalai Lama and other teachers – Buddhist and Christian - whose works I am studying would have done better, as I must in the future.

This tale has a postscript. The next afternoon I encountered three young-women hockey competitors who were watching television in a lounge across the hall from my apartment. They were Princeton students and we shared experiences from our Ivy League educations and athletic competitions. Rowing was my intercollegiate sport, though only for three semesters. In course of our conversation, asked about the prohibition against eating candy. My teammates and I had often eaten candy and gulped from jars of honey before a race in the hope the sugar would provide us with an energy burst. The young women looked puzzled. “Who told you not to hand out candy?” they asked. “We do have training rules of course, but a prohibition against eating candy certainly isn’t one of them!”



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