Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The House with the Weeping Willow on East 32nd St.: Part II

Josette and her Son with Isis under Willow Tree

Myself at Dinette Table from my Grandparents with Curtain in Kabuki colors

Farewell luncheon at the Langs' on 18 June 1973

Some of my students at my house in Eugene

To return to the period of my tenure as Associate Professor and at the house on East 32nd, without rehearsing all the difficulties (shared, I'm sure, by everyone who taught in the late 1960s and early 1970s) of the few students who came stoned to take examinations and who had to plead with one professor to give a grade unearned to balance an unsatisfactory one in another's, on account of the draft, to avoid Viet Nam, and also leaving to history books and memoirs the horrendous events of that time from Los Angeles to Newark and everywhere in between, I shall try to put together some particulars of everyday life of my own. Above is an evening with some of my students in that house. I have shown the orange painting and the arm-rest of the black japalac'd oaken chair in my present house more than 30 years later, and the eye of their owner can recognize some of the books, too, that I still have. In Oregon, serving even beer to one's students some of whom were under 21 was unthinkable, and these parties were largely conversational.
MDR, my department head, spoiled me in many ways. I got an office made over from a passage way, rather spacious, with two full walls of cork board and two long 'retired' library tables and the oak chairs that went with them. A short wall was painted white for projecting slides, and I taught graduate courses in the office with all the books and photo files close at hand, besides having all the pictures I loved and all those currently related to the graduate course of the term on the walls where I could dwell on them all the time.
For the house, my grandparents repaired and refinished a Victorian walnut table (it had suffered a severe cigarette burn where my grandfather set in a patch of old walnut) and fixed, in some cases supplying a missing leg or part of the seat, four mixed-wood, early 20th-century, common chairs (one is at right in the photo above), which completed my little dinette. I still have those things and even the old bookcase that filled the wall: the dinette had windows on the east, opposite that wall. They even repaired and refinished a spool bed, for which new slats had to be made, for me. I gave that away when I entered the convent. The house had oak flooring, though not of very high grade.
I got from Goodwill Industries a metal-tube, formica top table, and two of the chairs that go with such post-WW II kitchen tables, for the kitchen. Student friends twice came over and we made taffy, pulling it over that forgiving surface. Also, for a seminar in sculpture we made copy photos from books for seminar reports, on Panatomic-X Kodak film and using a bakelite ElKay developing tank, which was useful because it drained quickly enough to get the next chemical into it promptly, we used Kodak's chemical kit for direct reversal of the negative film to positive. Deftness and timing and temperature were critical, but the slides were very good. A few dozen still survive. When such work was being done, I'd call Chicken Delight which delivered as much fried chicken and cole slaw as was needed. Surely, it was in Oregon that I acquired the habit of doing myself everything I needed for teaching. When lecturers came to our Eugene Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, I took wedge tipped felt markers and hand-lettered the small posters for bulletin boards in our building and those of other departments that might be interested.
When I think back I find it remarkable that the students both socialized with me and respected my scholarly authority. Equally remarkable, I do not recall much gossip or any backbiting either among my colleagues or the students (that cannot be quite true, but when I look back I can think of nothing to call it all but 'very Oregonian'). On the other hand, as time passed and my grand affair, as I thought of it, ended as it had to, I sobered up, I read more, and what with lots of Augustine and Karl Jaspers and reflecting on the ruin of the lives of my mother and brother, from whom I could hardly keep my own identity really separate, I found myself thinking that all the great traditions of Greco-Roman, of Medieval, of 19th-century thought and belief could hardly be foolish (Elgar's "Dream of Gerontius" suited me perfectly, and I had the Barbirolli recording of it). Not suddenly but in the space of a couple of years I became an Anglican. Rome was too hard for me to accept, and the Greek church (like Buddhism) was, one had to admit, not of my own culture. I loved Greeks, but I couldn't pretend to be one. So I also attended other churches' services, learned all the liturgies, and, once Episcopalian, rather yearned to be a priest. Partly to atone in some way (not rationally) for my brother, I also taught at the state penitentiary at Salem for a year. In all this I was indulged and cherished by all my friends, including many whom I haven't mentioned here, and not least by St. Mary's Episcopal church in Eugene. Even then I sensed the spiritual and psychological mismatch of superior knowledge of theology and of church history with the green state of the new convert but decided to let it be. And at church I met persons whom I had to respect purely for themselves, a rare privilege for someone who had been trying to become Something—artist, scholar, academic—all her life. Some of my colleagues, though, who were themselves devout, had contacts with the Community of the Holy Spirit in New York. Eventually, after visiting the convent, after keeping a lay person's Rule for a year, I gave a year's notice to the university and gradually broke up housekeeping (all my friends helped me pack). Even then, no one rebuked me, though some, certainly, were appalled and saddened, either in Berkeley or in Eugene. It was true, just a further complication, that the likelihood of my having to live in Eugene forever, as I was approaching another academic promotion that would put me out of competition for mobility, and as the economy and the society were souring, besides, seemed like something I needed to break away from. I had enjoyed Eugene so very much, but it had never become real. I never had become part of it. CHS was glad to receive me as a postulant, and I was glad to try a vocation (and in NYC), but neither of us knew what we were getting. The vocation would fail, and eventually the raison d'ĂȘtre for my fervent belief would fail, without rancour, too. In 1981 I was very fortunate to get a tenure-track position, and I have been in Louisiana ever since.
Here, at the top of this post, is a picture of the going-away party at my dear friends' house on June 18, 1973. In two days, in my VW beetle, I'd be on my way to New York.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

A Sidebar on Brucie

The third child in our family was Brucie, born in 1939. Some might think that by clinging to his baby nickname, Boo (because he liked to play Peekaboo and it resembled his first baby talk for himself), my mother contributed to his problems, and so far as these were environmentally acquired her own problems didn't help, but the underlying problems could be easily identified now. It should be emphasized, too, that my mother was normally healthy during the pregnancy and not alcoholic nor, yet, heavily involved in medications. It was the post-war uncertainties, coming off wartime economy, and a hysterectomy at age 30 without any follow-up medical attention, that triggered her worst problems, so far as I can remember.

As soon as he could gather his legs under him in his crib and long before he crawled or walked, he rocked constantly and vigorously, bumping the top of his head incessantly, compulsively against the side of the crib, making a large lump, eventually breaking open, on top of his head. The doctor dressed it, had my mother change the dressing frequently, had my parents replace the wooden crib sides with screening. As soon as he sat, then walked, he bounced. Compulsively. Sharing the back seat of the family car with him is still unforgotten. I did realize that he wasn't doing it deliberately, and he had to be in the back seat since a bouncing toddler in the front was too dangerous. No one nagged at him; we knew it would do no good. It continued in the car, as I remember, even when he was six and seven. And, of course, there were no constraining seat belts, let alone constraining and containing baby seats. I can only wonder how a baby and a youngster such as Brucie might have responded to them.

He did not learn to read well, and spelling was hopeless: the classic case, in which GRIL and GIRL are indistinguishable. This continued into adulthood, when I received letters from him when he was in prison.
The bicycle accident, when he was taken unconscious to Highland Hospital, when we lived on East 25th in Oakland, is just part of a larger picture, which began, I am convinced, with the infantile rocking and head-banging and included the episode with nephritis (conflicting diagnoses) which, with the experimental live cross-transfusion, led to my father's death after hia becoming yellower and paler day by day for a week. These and other calamities also are somehow part of a larger picture.
The school psychologist at Elmhurst Junior High, when we lived on Kains in West Berkeley (shortly before I left home), said that his IQ was above average, notwithstanding. He did well in arts and crafts classes, which he also enjoyed when he was sent to the Juvenile Hall (a group of boys, Brucie among them, were caught stealing automobile tires, and by that time my mother, widowed, was deemed unable to handle the situation). At some time he was sent to my grandparents in San Luis Obispo, where he did well and the school chose him to be Fra Junipero Serra (the founder of California missions) in a pageant for Public Schools Week, when presentations were done for parents. He loved this. All else being equal, he'd have loved acting, having roles to play, over all else, I think. When he was sent home, and his big long-haired black cat was flown home to him, on his pleading, the cat was plumb crazy, and would not settle in. I guess it was not sedated for the trip.
When he joined the Air Force, barely old enough, after a few months he took someone else's car from the base at Biloxi and headed west; of course, he was caught.
When he married and had two children with a third on the way, he was caught giving alcohol to teenage boys of the neighborhood in Santa Rosa where they lived, with whom he also was sexually involved. Need I add, he was nearly 27 and they were in their mid 'teens, so it was homosexual statutory rape. Worst of all, for my grandparents (and for Brucie) he was sent to the prison that had been Camp San Luis during World War II, just on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo. It was from there that I received letters from him, the first I'd ever received from him. Later he was in a more serious correctional facilty, from which, being paroled, he fled to Mexico. And so on. Thereafter, I don't know much firsthand, because I was in Oregon or in Greece. He did have the usual problems in prison of a homosexual young man (but without any of the cultural smarts of educated gays). I'd never known prison was like that, with sex being currency, etc. But I alone, who knew a number of educated gay men, had recognized the likelihood that, married and with children notwithstanding, he was gay. I never figured out whether it was inability to get past adolescence or an innate part of his whole person.
I was in the convent in NYC when I heard from my sister Lorna that he'd been found with a knife in his back in the outskirts of Denver. By then, too, I'd seen him once earlier asleep, drugged, in his car, but I don't know how far back street drugs were involved. I knew nothing of street drugs, only of those dreaded medications of my mother. I knew there was nothing I could do to help her, and I doubt I could have done anything for Brucie. There is no possibility of truth to reality among the addicted. Some will say that, if there had been corrective medications in Brucie's early childhood, his life would have been different. I don't know whether or not. He was not like regular gay men, most of whom mature and grow old in enduring partnerships and friendships—precisely what, I fear, Brucie could not have done, though I don't know. My mother and my brother are my enduring hungry ghosts.