The basic principle of judo, so I have been told, is to use your enemy’s strength against him. I was forced to apply this principle more than once in college, when my athletic friends, invigorated by the joy of youth and a fifth of Jack Daniels, would suddenly realize how pleasant it would be to dangle the first available lightweight from the balcony. They meant no harm, really, but they did not know their own strength. More than one of them, after lurching in my direction, ended up sprawled out on the floor.
I had learned more irenic ways by graduate school. Rather than assault the housemate who refused to wash dishes after one of his dinner parties, I simply boycotted kitchen duty and dined out all of the time. I thought he would see the error of his ways, but he did not, and so I found myself, one chilly day in early May (the seventh, in fact) of 1969, pouring Lysol on a tub of dishes in the backyard and hosing them off. Nelson, my housemate’s college roommate, stopped by to commiserate, and we were joined by an undergraduate from next door, a behemoth of a senior who should have been a lineman for the Tarheels. I shall call him Bill, because that was his name.
“Say,” exclaimed Nelson, “Do you know what day it is today? It’s the 15th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu.”
“You mean,” said I, trying to imitate the...