Friday, February 5, 2010

First years in Oregon

Beyond finding an apartment and getting a kitten, I've been trying to give coherence to memories that are as brief and discreet as 30-second videos posted on line. Succinctly stated, I have a very weak sense of my personal identity in this new place, in a new status. It is a pity that I didn't take pictures of the old parts of the campus or of block after block of 11th Ave. between campus and downtown. Or, for that matter of my office space, which I shared with Edith Kramer. This was in the old part of Architecture and Allied Arts, on the upper floor. In the Office on the ground floor tests and instructional materials were typed and run off for us on a ditto machine or mimeograph. Purple ditto was easier to control, because one could draw diagrams to include without using a tool somewhat like a bad-tempered burin to draw on the A B Dick green film that wrapped around the drum of the mimeograph machine. The green film tore very easily, and the liquid used to make corrections didn't work very well. The secretaries would do the typing for us, but they had trouble with even the most conventional and careful handwriting, so one had to give them typed copy to work from. I had been spoiled by the wonderfully capable secretarial staff at Berkeley, who never would have typed H for a Ms. tt, in, for instance, a word like 'attitude'. At UO, some of them even doubted what we typed for them in the case of words they didn't know, especially proper nouns. 'Hittite', for example, tempted their worst instincts sorely, repeatedly. Of course the time would come in the 1980s when typing up course materials was not to be asked of the office staff at all, when the faculty were given Macs with a generous 750 MB of hard drive and a handy 3.5" floppy slot and expected to do all clerical work except for letters for themselves. But my first years were a full generation before the first Macs. The great thing was to have one's own Hermes portable typewriter, with its round o and e font. The Xerox machine was very new and incapable of copying solid black areas; the copy also came off if rubbed and for some time, therefore, was not acceptable for second and third copies of theses. Of Thermofax the less said the better. And both of these were expensive, each page costing twice as much as a first-class postage stamp. I was 28 years old when I began as an assistant professor. What technology there was was expensive on $6,800 per annum, but rent and food were cheap. At the cafeteria in the Student Union I got 45¢ entreees and 10¢ or 15¢ vegetable sides; coffee was 5¢—not because it was weak Oregon coffee, but because (as at Berkeley at a cafeteria) that was the price.
I was put off by Oregonian smugness. If one was dissatisfied with anything it was because one was an outsider of the worst kind, a Californian. I quickly learned that there was no collegial social life for single persons. I knew almost no one outside of my own department. There were places where one could have found 'dates', but almost no places for talking and making friends. There were places, outside the mile radius of campus, for getting drunk, but you had to go to a State store that closed early to buy a bottle of wine to go with dinner. At this time, apart from San Luis Obispo, I knew the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City (from one summer at the American Numismatic Society), Greece, and several European cities. Some people would say that I had no knowledge at all, first hand and casual, of America. I still resent the 'middle' American assumptions that only they are really American; I hope that they aren't, because no transalpine provincials could have seemed more simply bullheaded to ancient Rome than many of these good people seem to me. I hold them objectionable not because they think differently from me but because they are unwilling to have anyone else think differently from them. I wish that my compatriots did not despise and fear so many others so much. In Oregon I acquired almost all of the troublesome prejudices that I still have. Since then, to be sure, Oregon has evolved a great deal, as they will be the first to tell you. Then we had no radio for classical music, for instance. I never saw anything on others' television sets then even to tempt me to buy one for myself. Eventually during one of the years when Berkeley borrowed me back to cover a sabbatical I learned to drive. That helped a lot, since Eugene had practically no public transportation. I think that the gloomier weather and the unrelenting greenness tended to depress me somewhat, too. There were no hills with golden grass and with dark live oaks.
My homesickness was relieved by my growing friendship with M. D. Ross, architectural historian and head of my department. He often invited me to have dinner with him, he was a wonderful conversationalist, and he was of my parents' generation, having been born in the same year as my mother (but that was only 19 years my senior), single and no womanizer. He had lived for several years in New Orleans, too, and regaled me with tales of it. When I learned to drive, I could earn my keep, so to speak, by taking both of us to shop at a decent grocery (I have forgotten its name, but it was east of downtown on Willamette Street); we could take turns cooking, which he did far better, and oftener. (When much later, in 1981, I came to live in Louisiana there were several persons here who knew him, and the Dean at that time here had been at Oregon. It is not natural affinity, I think, so much as that the two universities still in the 1980s had a number of faculty who knew each other.) I never had a better friend, anywhere. When he was on sabbatical and once when he had been, as a pedestrian, hit by a car and had a healing pelvis to take care of, he let me teach History of Architecture to the 3rd-year students in Architecture, assigning and assessing models made in lieu of term papers, and all. I have never enjoyed any teaching quite so much as those courses. Once I even got to do the 19th-century course. Needless to say, I learned everything I know about architectural systems from him and my other colleagues in architecture at Oregon. It was as good as getting an additional degree. I learned to think through architecture three-dimensionally and structurally. I had to, and quickly. For a female, red-headed and still in her twenties, to stand before and lecture to over a hundred mostly male students (there might be as many as ten female students in the class), all concurrently enrolled in the Structures courses, average age 20-21, she had to know how the buildings were put together, how the materials behaved. Ancient Egypt and Greece were good to start with, but Rome was the great lesson. And the Middle Ages were awe-inspiring, not only in their engineering but in their continuing understanding of the principles of architectural Orders. It may be true that males understand these things more easily than females (science says so), but not all males. Even asked, on a test, to draw the Doric Order in a vertical section, a number of them not only had not heeded the injunction to study and understand it but actually drew things that looked more like table-lamps than temples. The same students never learned that it was no good to stick a flying buttress into the middle of a window. It was true that Modern ideals were still prevalent in current architecture, but no one was asking them to subscribe to those, only to understand what Villard de Honnecourt's drawings were showing.
You see what was taking my time and engaging my mind in these years. It was no wonder that I paid rather little attention to the town that, without a car for the first years, I could hardly get around it. Next time I'll talk about some other things and places.