Aage

Aage forced John Lennon to cut his hair.  Yoko too. Least wise, that was the story Aage told, and who was I to doubt it.

I first met Aage Rosendal Nielsen five months before the alleged crew cut incident took place at the New Experimental College (NEC) campus in the hilly northwest Jutland farmland of Skyum Bjerge, Denmark. It was the summer of 1969. I was 14 years old and had been hitchhiking around the UK and Europe for six weeks with my big sister Ann. She was 21 and had just finished her studies at the London School of Economics.  (I wrote earlier in this blog about our initial travels in Great Britain and Ireland in a piece titled “Breaking Away.”)  Mom and dad too were traveling elsewhere in Europe, and we were all to meet up at NEC.

Aage was the founder and rector of NEC, part of what he had labeled Nordenfjord World University.  It was a pedagogical inheritor of the Danish Folk High School tradition started in the 19th century by N. F. S. Grundtvig.  Aage boastfully said that the college would last for 1000 years.  As it turned out, he was off by about 975.

These were authority-challenging times in the late 60’s, and NEC’s structure was made for that weltanschauung. It had no regular classes and no published curriculum. No paid faculty members, in fact no “teachers” at all. Each student would pursue study interests, without interference or outside influence.  Students could study for as little as  one week or  up to one year. If they felt like teaching something, they could offer that too.  There was no tuition per se, other than paying the daily cost of sleeping and eating at the converted farmhouse that served as the college’s all-everything building. 

Like any seemingly non-hierarchical organization, Aage was the charismatic leadership that held the place together.  He published his magnum opus, “Lust for Learning,” in 1968 and NEC was born from that lodestar. He was famous enough to draw in my sister Ann from London, John and Yoko from wherever they were churning out “Peace Studies”, and my social work professor father and mother, intellectually curious about what was labeled then the European “Youth Movement.”

Aage was middle aged, iconoclastic, challenging, brilliant and arrogant.  My sister was having problems with my parents, and she determined that NEC could serve as a place to directly address those problems. A core decision making tool at NEC were Aage-led sessions called tings. Disputants would sit around and express their problems with others and work to resolve them.  Our family did a ting.

To my 14-year-old self, Aage gave the impression of a deeply “cool” person, and the encounter with Ann and the folks was an opportunity for all of them to learn from each other in a safe environment. He called us “The Funny Family” and called me “Little Brother.” He seemed avuncular and sardonic and whip smart. I grew to trust him.

Our ting was in the vast farmhouse central room.  Ringed with bookshelves filled with the works of R.D. Laing, C.G. Jung, and other titles of the counterculture zeitgeist; walls with art by students; long wooden dining tables and upright chairs; and plush soft couches and futons; the room was for dining, lounging, studying, presentations, and tings.

Aage led off our ting with a question.  “Why are we here?” At first there was awkwardness, then Ann started in.  She had been misunderstood. She had had unfair expectations placed upon her by our parents. She was struggling with many questions that our parents could not understand. As the ting continued, I listened intently.  Because the controversy was not upon me, I had an opportunity for detached perspective. I remember distinctly, and perhaps for the first time, feeling smart and mature and wise and clever in my family. And I remember Aage credentialing what I said.

The ting ended well.  Tears of reconciliation. Hugs.  A sense of bonding from a shared emotional experience.

But in the perspective of time and a horrible subsequent event, it all seems gimmicky now.

Seven years later, just prior to starting at The Evergreen State College, I was traveling around Europe and contacted Aage to see if I could stay at NEC, study, and do some farm work to offset some of the daily “tuition” costs.  Aage agreed.  But when I arrived, I had a horrible illness.  Temperature well over 100 that lasted for days and days. I was bedridden.  After close to a week, I began to come out of it.  Aage told me that I would have to pay full tuition since I had not been working.  I said I didn’t have that full tuition. He called me a filthy, money-grubbing Jew and that I had to pay the full cost. “Whatever happened to the honest, smart boy I knew seven years ago?” he screamed.

I called my parents to tell them of the situation, and to wire money. But Aage wanted more than just the money for the days I had been there.  He wanted the full amount for the entire time that I had intended to stay, even though I now wanted to leave immediately. I was distraught. Frightened. His face was in a rage as he laid into my character.

When he concluded his ultimatum, he left the room swiftly, expecting me to take action to rectify my error.  His younger, Indian girlfriend remained.  “Aage can be so unnecessarily cruel sometimes,” she said to me in a mixture of sympathy and intellectual detachment. Then she left too.

That evening, I gathered my belongings, paid what I could along with a note of explanation, and escaped NEC in the dark of night. And wondering, for the rest of my life, what constituted “necessary cruelty.”

January 5, 1970 – New Experimental College – Aage’s hand gesturing with John listening

I hitchhiked away and got picked up by a middle-aged Danish couple who owned a farm down the road.  I told them what happened with Aage and they were incensed.  They had heard of him, didn’t know him well, but were appalled by what he did to me.  I asked them whether I could make a collect call to my parents at their home and they graciously allowed me to do that. 

This is where it gets a bit vague.  I remember talking with Mom and Dad and Dad saying, “let me talk with Aage and see what I can do.”  After a while, Dad called me back and said something to the extent that Aage felt badly about the outburst and wanted to get back together with me to talk about the situation. I told Dad I’d think about it.

My hosts at the time were adamantly against it.  “Don’t go back to that man, Aage. He’s not a good man.”  But I decided to go back and try to work something out. 

In retrospect, my best guess is that Dad called Aage and read him the riot act.  Essentially shaming him into talking with me.  He and Mom might even have decided to pay off Aage to some degree just to protect me.  I don’t know if either of those scenarios are correct. But what I do remember is going back and having a tête-à-tête with Aage, no longer feeling cowed by him, but coming to an agreement about money and time.  I then stayed a day or two more before taking off.  I did not leave in a huff, but more with a sense of dignity intact, and an important lesson learned that anti-Semitism is lying under the surface of so many, including the perceived enlightened liberals.

Strumming at NEC – Perhaps Aage, John and Yoko had a ting, and this was the result!

16 thoughts on “Aage

  1. Wow…tough thing for a 14 year old to experience. I don`t think I would have returned. Glad your dad read him the riot act.

    Hope all is well with both of you. Have a toast to a happy and well new year!

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  2. I remember that you told me about someone calling you “money hungry Jew,” but did not have the context. Sounds like an interesting event for a young Daniel. I am amazed that you can remember things so well.

    Brian

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    1. Regarding memory, it is a tricky thing. And no doubt there are details we may be getting wrong in everything dealing with the recall of past events. But what fascinates me is how much more relevant and lasting are those many incidents and moments of my life that are associated with travel.

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  3. Did you just write this? I’ve read it previously, perhaps in a different form, or perhaps you just told me this part of the story. I’m ready for summer, peaches or not.

    The rain caused water in our basement last night, discovered just as we planned to watch a film at 9, and we were up until 3 removing the water. And more rain is forecast today, tonight and tomorrow. Diane is scheduled to work tomorrow and I’m already exhausted. Damn NW winters. Summer can’t come soon enough. I’ll try to imagine juicy peaches. Or just sun.

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    1. You have had to deal with more than enough indoor flooding over the years. So sorry to hear of your latest bout. We had a bit of wall seepage that we temporarily took care of, but will await a final repair in the spring when, rumor and memory have it, the rain let’s up from time to time.

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  4. Wow. This is a breathtaking story – first, because you had that oh-so-sixties experience at age 14, and second, because of the anti-Semitism and cruelty you experienced seven years later. We’ve been on this earth long enough to know that anti-Semitism too often rears its ugly head, but it is still such a disappointment when it happens. Happy New Year and love to you, dear Daniel.

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    1. Love back at you, Melanie.

      One of the amazing aspects to me of anti-Semitism, and more broadly racism and other-ism, is that there is something inherent in humanity that can be tamped down, put aside, made smaller, but is always there underneath, ready to emerge when the going gets tough.

      In so many ways, Aage was actually a pretty delightful, inspiring person. An old Olympia friend of mine, Ron, who is now an emeritus prof in North Carolina and is Jewish, knew Aage far better than I. I met Ron originally in Denmark back in 1969 (that first “ting” time with my family) when he was doing some teaching and learning in an associated learning environment to NEC. I recently showed Ron an earlier version of this blog entry and we had a fascinating email back and forth. Ron said that Aage had great respect for Judaism and Jews and I have no reason to doubt that.

      YET… underneath… there is was in Aage. And there it still is for me, etched forever in memory. The soul-crushing time I was yelled at by a man of esteemed character, with a raged-filled face, and called a “filthy money-grubbing Jew.”

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  5. Daniel,

    I read your Aage story this morning and I think it’s the best thing you have ever posted. Really good!!!

    If you changed the names to protect the guilty and innocent, it would make a great short story.

    with love

    Andrea

    ________________________________

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  6. Ah, the wolf in sheep’s clothing. Confirms my belief that the more religious or spiritual someone professes to be, the more dishonest they actually are. Definitely a cynical way to look at it, but I’ve had it proven to me too many times to ignore. Maybe if I had met someone like Mother Theresa, I would have a different perspective. Hmmmmmm.

    Anyhoo, I loved your article, Daniel, and must say that you have led a very interesting life. You could write a book about all these things – a different chapter for each adventure.

    Thanks for sharing with me.

    Love to you and Jean.

    Cathy

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10

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    1. Your reaction is curious to me. I did not see Aage’s behavior as related to any religious beliefs of his own. Rather I saw his inherent anti-semitism as part of a broader cultural reality. Nor did I see the reality of being a Jew, as a religious identity in thos case either. What religious or spiritual dimension were you referring to?

      Also, check out my response to Melanie in the comment section. Aage was a pretty amazing and loving guy in many aspects of his life.

      On Tue, Jan 5, 2021, 9:12 AM Daniel's Derekh wrote:

      >

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  7. You’ve had some very interesting experiences! Did you ever talk to your Dad about what happened in the Aage exchange? Do you know what happened to NEC? Did it fail when Aage departed the scene? John

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  8. I don’t remember talking with my dad about what he may have said to Aage. As for the fate of NEC… it died soon after Aage did. His vision of a 1000 year old University ended about 975 years too soon.

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  9. Your detail in recalling your experiences is so descriptive and clear. The way you describe Aage, NEC, the tings, the Jekyll and Hyde of his persona…it’s all so spot on.

    I remember NEC, the tings, and Aage’s poetic lectures. I remember the iron-age burial mounds that were on the property, and the path from the farmhouse down to the fjord.

    I was 12 years old on my first visit to Denmark when I traveled with my parents to stay at NEC for 2 weeks. I remember the dorms, the sauna, the songs, the communal dining table, and all the books. I remember Aage had a private quarters that no was was allowed to go into. My sister and I sneaked in once. We saw his typewriter, his cigars and his clogs. I remember a tension between my parents, and then Aage calling a ting. My mom hated the idea of a ting. She felt it was an opportunity for public shaming disguised as a “safe place” to talk opening about feelings. Dad found tings as a fascinating way to learn about people and philosophy about life. My mom has a sixth sense about folks. Even as young kids, we knew the concept of a ting was a tigger for her. We later learned that Aage made demeaning comments about her Mexican heritage and said she was not good enough for my father, who is half Danish, half American. For someone as worldly and scholarly as Aage, I considered perhaps my mom was overreacting or misunderstood him. I rationalized his actions because I’d only seen his charismatic side. I didn’t witness it myself. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t fathom why someone would be so callous. I didn’t know the extent that his comment cut. She was demoralized and she still carries the scar of those comments.

    I went back to Denmark 2 more times after that trip, My second trip was when I was 19 and I was traveling alone for a month. I stayed with family members we met on my first trip and then I stayed with Aage, and his lady friend at the time, for a week. It’s where I learned to drink coffee. Strong Danish coffee. We enjoyed having long conversations about life and he showed me around town. His lady friend though it would be a good idea for us to go out to dinner one night because she had a different event to attend. During dinner, Aage brought up my mom. It was as if he was waiting to build up my trust, only to pull the rug out from under me. Never the type to be disrespectful, I listened. I was a guest in his home. How could I speak up and tell him what he was saying is wrong and disrespectful? I listened longer than most people would because I didn’t know how to respond. He said my Mom isn’t good enough because she’s Mexican. I hadn’t found my voice yet. And then, I reacted. I told him off and got up and left him sitting by himself in a restaurant where he was highly-respected. I left town leaving my things behind. I ran to the train station. I don’t speak Danish, but I used the pictures to figure it out. I got on the first train out of town. Checked into a hotel in Aalborg. Washed my clothes in the sink while wondering how it all escalated. What was I going to do next? Where was I going to go? I grew up on that trip. I figured it out.

    The next and final time I was in Denmark was in 2003. It was for Aage’s funeral. I went with my Dad so he could bury his father.

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