The Colosseum

As a high school senior in 1987, I wanted to go to Yale but didn’t have the grades or perfect SATs or the right extracurricular activities or a good application essay or a chance in hell. What I did have was the belief that I belonged with the elite. My belief wasn’t entirely unjustified, as I would occasionally get high with a neighborhood Yale graduate who gave me my first job in bank technology marketingten cents per name for retyping the entire ABA membership directory to use with a direct mail campaign promoting a core banking system developed by his business partner in California. Hiring a kid was cheaper than buying the list. Even with all the typos.

Not only did I not get into Yale despite having a righteously epic alumni rec, I didn’t get into any of the colleges on my list, not even my designated safety school, which in reality was also a reach. What I’ve learned: If a college has a single-digit acceptance rate and therefore rejects over 90 percent of applicants, that doesn’t mean applying to enough schools turns the entire effort into a coin flip. In other words, you cannot calculate joint probability using non-independent events: My busted application was busted everywhere, and even more so for the most selective schools.

The only place that accepted my late-April application was Carnegie Mellon, and then only as a legacy. My mother, who studied graphic design at Carnegie Tech, was former art director of Seventeen and at the time art director of Ladies’ Home Journal, and she may have intimated to the admissions office that she was responsible for hiring graduates, in truth, for the odd photography or illustration job. She also for the first time read my college essay and ordered a complete rewrite. I got in, pledged a frat, took Statistics I (“B”) and II (“D”), and still made it through in four years, which is another story.

Since then, I’ve become a better student, and you might even say a perpetual student. I have an MBA from Vanderbilt (rejected from Yale SOM), a Certificate in Japanese from Cornell, and a Master’s of Liberal Arts from Harvard Extension School.

I have been brand-conscious when it comes to my education, and over the years I have also become price-conscious. After Harvard, instead of immediately signing up for another degree program, I started looking at online learning options. At the time, MOOCs were the new thing with sites like Coursera and EdX offering courses from schools around the world. I’m not a fan. I hate the forced-march pacing, the division of content into tidy little digestible blocks, the stupid quizzes to see if you’re listening, the ghostly message boards, and the way that MOOCs pare the reading lists to the bare essentials because you can’t expect online students to buy books or to use a library.

I missed the spontaneity of the classroom experience, the performance of a good teacher who knows how to riff, and the long reading lists, including actual books, journal articles, and the opportunity for library research. Just like at Haaaaaarvard.

That’s when I came across Open Yale Courses. Each of the 40+ courses consist of a full semester’s worth of taped lectures, giving the experience of auditing an actual class, from the first class aimed at the students who are still in the shopping period to discussions of the first paper topic to the final exam. You can take notes if you wish, but there’s a complete transcript of every class. You can press play, sit back, and take it in.

After watching the first lectures for Introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and then spending all day writing at length on various topics related to the Federal Reserve, that very evening I came up with several literary ideas loosely inspired by the lectures:

My first idea was to rewrite Don Quixote in the style of the Bible, as if instead of being born a novel, the story of the knight-errant and his squire had been compiled by secondary sources and witnesses, translated into Hebrew, edited and re-edited by high priests, handed down to future generations, translated into the King’s English, and then taken as the received truth.

My second idea: Ekphrasis using a dog. Ekphrasis is when you read a written description of a work of art. The canonical example is in the Iliad with the shield of Achilles, which is so finely wrought as to be capable of depicting no less than nine action scenes, completely unpaintable and unsculptable and to my mind a forerunner of Bradbury’s Illustrated Man. I came across the concept of ekphrasis while casting around for another possible research concept after completing my Harvard thesis (“Narrative Complexity in the Talking-Dog Stories of Cervantes, Hoffmann, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Kafka”). I had also just started taking drawing classes for the first time and wanted to work that in somehow.

The concept was to rewrite Cervantes’ “Dialogue of the Dogs” as a graphic novel, told through the frame story of an Illustrated Dog. The ekphrastic Illustrated Dog would retell Cervantes’ short story through the images on its body, and at various points, the pictorial narration would switch to a biographical sketch of Cervantes, including a focus on his imputed Jewish heritage, a topic I had encountered in the course of my research but had not yet explored; and the telling would also bring in elements from my own autobiography. To recap, it’s a talking-dog-as-moving-picture displaying a story about two talking dogs (from Cervantes’ short story) and two human authors (Cervantes and me). The big twist is that the talking dogs are real, the humans their inventions.

The entire last paragraph? That’s ekphrasis.

My third idea I’ll get to in a moment.

My fourth idea was to predict the future movement of stock prices and options using concealed messages revealed through Kabbalah. My favorite books about investing are the Market Wizards series, in which Jack Schwager interviews traders and hedge fund managers about their investment styles. And if there’s one thing you learn from Schwager, it’s that a successful investment style has to precisely suit your capabilities. So, I figured, how about doing some big-data pattern recognition to find back-tested matches between the numerical kabbalistic values of Biblical passages and timecoded stock prices? Based on those results, I could then create an automated strategy to execute trades based on the eternal idea that G-D will provide, hot stock tips and all. And then I remembered that I’m a little shaky on statistics or quantitative analysis or data science or whatever they’re calling it now, not to mention entirely ignorant when it comes to Kabbalah, and so the concept would work much better in a novel:

The Yeshiva Bocher of Wall Street. An investor designs a kabbalistic investment strategy, becomes amazingly wealthy, attracts followers, becomes a global figure. Problems ensue, sex scandal, Job-like trials. Crisis of faith. Reconciliation. Lesson that the market needs to be separate from religion, that’s the way G-D wants it. And the big twist is that the titular Yeshiva Bocher stole the idea from the book that you’re reading. That’s why he was cursed to failure. Dear reader, don’t even think about it.

The third idea, the idea that took: To watch the entire Open Yale Courses series and then write about the experience.

The initial concept was for a “Yale Year,” but then I took a closer look at the 40+ courses with 1,000+ lectures and saw that to do it justice would require at least a four-year commitment, the equivalent of eight semesters with a full load meeting the requirements of an undergraduate degree. The scope of the Open Yale Courses library was no accident. Instead of trying to replicate the Library of Alexandria, this was a carefully curated collection, the video counterpart to the 50-volume Harvard Classics, “Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf of Books,” giving the Yale College experience to the world.

These became my guidelines:

  1. Watch all the videos, and pay attention.
  2. Do the reading.
  3. Borrow from libraries. Buy from used bookstores.
  4. Feel free to skip the homework for now, or forever.
  5. Write something about each course.
  6. When so inspired, take it further with a creative project.

Nine years later, I’m on my 32nd course. The remaining classes consist of the hard sciences, which call for a different approach; a few classes in finance and economics that I’ve already covered as an MBA student; and Roman Architecture, which I’m saving for last.

Approaching the end of the project, it’s time to reflect on my Yale years through writing and other creative projects.

Think of it as an encounter somewhere in the shadows of the Colosseum with an Illustrated Dog who tells you a story about a perpetual student from the mythic land of New Jersey—nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

Ivan at the Pantheon