Even though everyone knew about the crisis for over a year, it took until hours shy of the deadline before the White House and congressional leaders avoided the fiscal cliff. Guess what? In two months we’ll be repeating the process when spending cuts and the debt ceiling come due. As they say online in instant messages, “Grr!”

This outgoing 112th Congress’ legislative record (worst in modern history) and the term “fiscal cliff” somehow remind me of my collegiate study habits, also the worst in modern history. (However, I wasn’t getting $174,000 annually for working two days a week plus health benefits and pensions, and voting myself a raise whenever it suited me.)

At UCLA, even though I had all semester, often I would wait until the last few days (or last few hours) to cram for finals. Switching to crisis mode, I would drink coffee, take NoDoz and make use of “study guides” known as CliffsNotes, which summarized literature and history into pamphlets with a glossy yellow and black cover that were sold at the campus bookstore. For me, they were a life saver.

In 1958, Cliff Hillegass started his unique “study guide” business in his Lincoln, Neb., basement with 16 Shakespeare titles. Today there are 300 titles in 7,000 retail outlets. Critics claimed students bypassed assigned reading while Cliff insisted his “guides were not a substitute for original reading material.” (I hate to break the news to you Cliff, ol’ boy, but they were for me.)

By now it’s obvious that perhaps I wasn’t the most mature college student. How I graduated at all could make for a funny novel although today I’ll settle for a funny column.

A perfect example was a fiasco in an advanced speech class in my sophomore year. I should point out that at UCLA, roll was not taken so attending class was voluntary. (At least that was my interpretation on sunny days when debating going to the beach or sitting in class.)

I rationalized, “How much would I learn from hearing other people’s speeches as long as I did a good job on my own.” It somehow worked until one fateful Wednesday before the Thanksgiving break. (All these years later, if I eat too much spicy food before bed, I can still have nightmares about it.)

Tuesday a classmate called out of the blue about my speech due the next day. Having not attended class in a while I didn’t realize. Even worse, while the subject was “civil disobedience,” I didn’t know which side of the issue I was to speak on. Yikes!

I had no choice but to write and memorize two speeches on civil disobedience, one in favor and one opposed. (Good training for schizophrenia.) When I entered class the following morning, suffering from a bad case of coffee nerves, I saw my name on the blackboard as fourth up to speak and that I was “against” civil disobedience. In my mind I immediately tried to replace Gandhi’s quotes with J.Edgar Hoover’s but it wasn’t working.

My only hope was to stall for time so that my turn would be postponed until Monday. After each speech I asked endless questions and made as many comments as I could muster. Classmates found it odd that a guy who ditched class so often was suddenly so intently interested. I shrugged sheepishly. Meanwhile, the hands on the clock moved so slowly I thought they were broken.

Finally it was my turn. Like a condemned man, I walked slowly toward the podium, my head spinning. Imagine “The Godfather” scene at the Italian restaurant where Michael Corleone is about to kill a drug kingpin and his corrupt cop bodyguard. Michael’s brain races so fast that he can’t hear a word even though they are talking directly at him. Finally, he pulls the trigger.

Apparently, I was more like Fredo than Michael. (Ouch!) Stepping toward the podium, at the last moment I opened the door and casually left the room. What had I done? I wasn’t sure but as I walked down the hallway I could hear the laughter echo off the walls. It was deafening.

Over Thanksgiving I frantically tried to come up with a plausible story. By Monday my excuse was that I had a gym class before speech (which I had) and had left my notes in my locker and went back to retrieve them. (Which I hadn’t.) I eventually got a C in the class instead of a B, and the teacher told me my “disappearing act” was the reason. Frankly, I was relieved I didn’t get an F.

Whereas I had Thanksgiving weekend, Congress has two months. My guess is their story will be just as lame as mine. And with Congress’ approval polls at 9 percent, I have a feeling very few voters will give them a passing grade. (And yet most members of Congress will undoubtedly get re-elected. Grr No. 2.)

As for Cliff Hillegass, he died in Lincoln, Neb., in 2001 at the age of 83. I hoped he’d find it poetic justice that I researched him on the modern day CliffsNotes — Wikipedia.


Jack can be reached at jnsmdp@aol.com.

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