Thursday, March 25, 2010

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

Parking-Lot Autocross on a Sunday in July, 1968; me in 356A

Early Spring, early 1970s, by the apple tree

I'm not sure precisely when I got the house of East 32nd Street in Eugene, OR. I simply began looking for houses in the Classified Ads of the Eugene Register Guard. With a car I no longer needed to be within walking distance of the university. Without too much trouble I went to the home of relatives of a young family who had had to move to Alaska, they said for the health of one of the children. In any case, the house could be leased with option to buy, meaning that there was no down payment, the first year's rent would count as payments on the principle, and I was assuming only the remainder owed on the mortgage. In short, they had to unload the house. So I bought a house, built to post-War FHA specifications, living room, dining room, kitchen, bath, and two bedrooms, with a hall running from the front door to the bathroom door (its only serious flaw). The garage was attached, the back porch was enclosed, and a new gas furnace was installed in a closet in the kitchen. The lot was 110 feet deep, back to an alley, and there was a dense hedge of blackberries there. In the yard were an apple tree grafted to bear early "Transparents", then Gravensteins, then Newton Pippins, then red Delicious (a late apple), and a prune tree. In a declivity in the center there was a stand-pipe with a faucet. In fact, a rivulet, a small creek, had once openly run through my lot, and probably that fact and the root system of the willow tree were the cause of the rotted main foundation timbers on the NE corner, so that it was part of the deal that I would have that corner and the porch stabilized, which I did. When I say, built to FHA standards, anyone my age will know that the letter of the law as to number of closets, width of hallway, number of electrical outlets, and the like, was strictly adhered to, while the grade of timbers and anything else that could be scotched could become a problem by the time the house was 25 years old.
The early Spring photo at the head of this posting shows me with my friend Jean's black cat, Angus, by the apple tree. There were so many prune-plums in late summer that one couldn't even give them away. Continuing to live out my postponed adolescence, I became a pretty good frisbee player in the long back yard. In the front yard, bad for the house's foundations but beautiful, was a large weeping willow, its branches (though occasionally trimmed) reaching the ground, a place for summer picnic lunches outdoors. One year I had the help in keeping the house in order of the French wife of a graduate student in English literature, who came twice a month and brought her little boy with her; there are slides, somewhere, of them picnicking in the shade of the willow, along with my own black cat Jason (I had been using Greek myths for my cats' names for years). I'll scan and post one here if I can find them. Anyhow, I had a house of my own, and it cost only $8,600; my monthly payments, which decreased as the principle did, eventually were only about $80.  I had a home of my own, but I wouldn't have a washer and dryer of my own until I got my present home in Louisiana.
Just south on East 34th were the Langs, the son, Bob, being one of my best friends among my coevals on the faculty. By this time, I had a real network of variously related friends in Eugene, some of them now from St. Mary's Episcopal Church, one of whom was Jean, who later became a Mormon but whom I knew because she sometimes served as organist at church. But some of my friends were gay, too, and some of those from Church, for that matter, were gay. Others were as agnostically humanistic as I had been. Of these, one was my lover for quite a while, and I got to know the guys from his fraternity, too.  Several of them had rented a house near campus; to the tune of "Alice's Restaurant" we celebrated when one of them, to avoid the army draft, joined the Navy.  We made with poster paint on butcher's paper a sign the full width of the house in order to document our party for his departure; it said, in letters two feet high, FUCK THE NAVY, and we all lined up beneath it.  I had my Nikon F on a tripod with the timer set to 10 seconds and a place was left for me to run into just in time.  The neighbors across the street called the Eugene police, who came, a nice young officer as young as any of the fraternity members.  We explained the occasion and invited him to get in the picture, too.  He couldn't keep a straight face, but he had to refuse.  My dearest friend of all, M. D. Ross, of my mother's birth cohort, watched all of such socializing unbecoming a professor without nagging me about it, never a part of that intricate network of younger friends, most of them in fact also younger than I was. None of us thought of ourselves as hippies, certainly, but the late 60s indeed is the decade in question. Anyone who wishes to could call all this "finding oneself", but I did not engage in the inspection of my own navel, as the saying was, until later and for other reasons.
Shopping now was easy, not only because of the car but because a new Albertson's, of the then new and still Mormon grocery chain, opened only three or four blocks away, and then a large Safeway opened up the hill and farther south, while we still had the nice family-owned small grocery up where East 32nd met Willamette. There was a steak-and-salad eatery up on Willamette, too (where on Sunday afternoons several times the Emerald Empire Sports Car Club ran parking-lot autocrosses in assorted sports cars, beetles, mini-coopers, and so on; for real autocrosses we had to go over to the desert; for rallyes we used Oregon's quarter roads and others of later origin all over the Willamette Valley and up into the Coast foothills). It was at a car show near Roseburg, OR, where (quite unqualified) the Emerald Empire Sports Car Club was serving as judges of the restored antique cars, in the public room of the resort motel where it was held, we watched the first Apollo moon landing.
One winter, perhaps 1968, Oregon had serious snow, as Washington DC had this year: it was 2 feet deep on the roof of my little FHA house, so that after boys were hired to shovel it off the house had to be re-roofed; Croesus the cat had gone under the house (not just on brick pillars as in Louisiana, but with enclosed foundations) and after a couple of days when I had to imagine him entombed in snow as the inhabitants of Pompeii had been in ash I heard a pitiable mewing and, estimating the location of the opening to the under-house where he was wont to enter, I shoveled and shoveled and out he came, indignant and hungry. In that snow, it was impossible to drive my 356A Porsche (very second hand but the most fun I ever had with a car and a joy on the Interstate, when the speed limit was 80 and the Porsche cruised at 80-plus and never got stopped), because with streets of frozen ruts and ridges it just got hung up. I hiked into campus, over three miles, in ski pants and boots I'd bought in England, serious boots with thick soles and fleece lining.
Now, I have mentioned many things that I haven't tried to deal with. I only mean to show that by most standards I finally lived a normal American life in Eugene, Oregon. And I do love the memory of almost everyone that I knew. For a second post, I'll try to organize my memories a little better, because I've left out many things of more substance, and I never kept a diary. Indeed, this blog is my first venture of any such kind.
I see that I tend to think that everything happened in 1968. Probably not everything, though a lot did, and not only in the nation at large.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Thoughts intersecting

The last post, on the cottage, was chaotic, but, excluding my work, so was my life: not defined at all.
This is a good occasion to essay the intersection of two trains of thought, each of which has tributaries.
Sometime in the early 1960s, reading C. S. Lewis or Dorothy Sayers, I noticed discussion of Sir Thomas Browne (and in Sayers a whole paragraph on a performance of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins). I don't have Miss Sayers' novels in the house now, but it is not unlikely that I picked up both Browne and that concerto in her "Gaudy Night". Some authors describe furniture and railway stations to authenticate their fiction, but not a few use authors and artists. Several authors, I noticed later, seem to have owned the same famous Gramaphone Society recording of that Bach Concerto. My beloved mentor and thesis adviser at Berkeley had advised me to do something about my own prose by reading Virginia Woolf's "Common Reader". It may seem an odd choice, being idiosyncratic, but so was Sir John Beazley, of the same generation, and together they brought me to understand that writing involved more than grammatically defensible statements. Besides, I wasn't quite so dense as to attempt imitating either of them, and, but for his intervention, I might have kept writing like the worst of Miss Alcott's works for the rest of my life. I learned to pay attention to how I wrote. That it is, as T. R. Reid said in an interview last week, very hard work all who have tried it will agree.

Sometime after 1958, when it was published, I acquired a very nice C.U.P. editio minor, by John Carter, of Thomas Browne's "Urne Buriall" and "The Garden of Cyrus". The title page of the original edition was reproduced as a frontispiece:
As a budding archaeologist, I found him delightful, and I was fascinated by the interface of embryonic archaeology and, more than impressive, awe inspiring knowledge of Authors (to which, now, I'd add his familiarity with Roman coins found in England). And his prose was as lucid as enchanting, just as promised. He must have had an impressive private library, because it is the books that one lives with, I thought, then as now that become one's own, not some sort of database but a part of one's mind. To this day I haven't read all the Authors that Sir Thomas Browne knew intimately. So I was not surprised that Leslie Stephen's daughter, Virginia Woolf, in her early novel, "Night and Day", at the end of Ch. 5 (in the Hogarth Press Uniform Edition, pp. 72-73) chooses a "very lovely edition of Sir Thomas Browne" from which to have Denham read "a passage which he knew very nearly by heart". The young Virginia Stephen probably knew it from her father's library and used the book that she remembered, but certainly did not have in hand, since she cited it as four titles. I mentioned the Uniform Edition, because it is what I had; the American editor emended it, and her friends had caught the error immediately. I was shocked and puzzled; I did not know until years afterward how very ill she had just been in 1919. Besides, she may have recalled from girlhood reading the really puzzling "Garden of Cyrus" rather than the "Hydriotaphia".

A friend and I were discussing by e-mail what makes Tolkien more likable (to me) than C. S. Lewis, and I had said that it was that Tolkien's scholarly infrastructure was incomparably vaster and stronger and more wholly digested than Lewis's. It seems unkind to point out that Tolkien actually had children of his own to write for ("The Hobbit", anyhow), but it may be important. It was in that context that I remembered how I forgave Virginia Woolf practically any scholarly sin (rightly or not, I do not believe that she really mastered much Greek), and I had to conclude that I liked the way that she wrote, that I read her for her writing. Here, in any case, I only want to explain how it was that I located my own copies of Sir Thomas Browne and re-read (so far) the "Urne Buriall" (by now the preferable title, since the vessels shown are not what we'd today call hydrias):
In fact, I still do not know what to call them, but not, I think, 'Roman', unless chronologically speaking.

But here is the intersection of trains of thought that led me to record it here. Timothy Ferris, a science writer, has published a book, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, on which he spoke on BookTV last weekend. I listened twice. I have not yet decided to buy his book, for two reasons: he used charts projected in Powepoint, and in me he was preaching to the choir. Not only Virginia Woolf's friends had inculcated the Age of Enlightenment, as well as her father and Edmund Gosse, but, as I think I mentioned in an earlier posting, Hans Reichenbach's "Rise of Scientific Philosophy" and Karl Popper himself had helped form my mind in the 1950s. What interests me is, I suspect, a revival of the thought of my youth, opposing Liberal to Totalitarian (for example), and valuing what I might regard as a blend of Stoic and Epicurean points of view. In fact, it was just last year, if I remember rightly (time passes more quickly for the elderly), that a new translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius was presented on that same BookTV. So, when I was enjoying the "Urne Buriall" again after at least twenty years, I noticed how perfectly his reading of the ancient Authors was brought to bear on the ancient cemeteries that in the 17th century were already known and how critically, as a doctor but not only as a medical doctor, he assessed the contents of burials for the evidence of the tools and ornaments and coins, or absence of coins, in them. Today he would be the perfect amateur numismatist, studying hoard evidence closely but refraining from drawing unwarranted conclusions from what he realized must be very partial evidence. In fact, medical doctors today do tend to like numismatics and epigraphy, too. I suppose I ought to find out whether Timothy Ferris used him as a witness.

Since I respect Ferris's ideas (though on looking it over I decided that I didn't like his prose so well), I am delighted if a generation that, like mine, will not be able to take prosperity for granted will be sustained by the kind of thought that sustained me. I am used to seeing Ravi Shankar revived with every new form of sound recording, but empirical thinking is not quite so marketable. It makes me wish I were not retired and might enjoy undergraduates responsive to ideas that excited and continued to inform my own mind.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Cottage on East 20th at the Alley

Certainly I moved into the cottage, at 1460 1/2 East 20th Avenue, where the alley divided the block, just south of the UO campus, but the full width of the campus from the Architecture and Allied Arts building (which by chance happened to be named for someone with the same last name as mine) where I taught, when I no longer had to shop on foot, in the absence of much public transportation, when I had a car: I had the red 1963 Beetle by then, for that reason and because I needed it to go visiting, too. I have no photographs of the cottage, and it is not visible on the satellite photo of the block in Google Earth. I did buy my first Nikon F, in 1965, when I was there: I remember taking a test roll of black and white film with it in and around the cottage. As usual, with any new camera, my first pictures were poor, except for optical superiority of a good Nikon lens, but I don't have any of them now.
Measuring mentally, I can say that the cottage, on a concrete slab, was about 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep, with living space reduced by the 10' X 20' garage at the west end. It was meager in design, a feature of Oregon houses, but extremely so. Minimal sills, minimal overhangs, minimal stoop for a door mat, linoleum tile floors throughout. A living room, which also held the oil-burning furnace, and a kitchen were across the front, looking out on my landlady's back lawn (one interesting thing about Oregon, I thought, was that in the Spring robins actually did pull very long earthworms out of the earth, just as in picture books of my early childhood). The rear rooms (and having measured the "study", the NW corner room, for bookcases, I now use it to estimate the total living space) were only 8 feet deep. The landlady said the small room had been intended as a starter nursery; I put a student desk and some book cases in it; for the first time I had a separate room for a study at home. The rest of the rear was a bathroom and a bedroom. I remember that I did not have a bed frame but just a mattress on box springs on the floor. Having no raised foundation, the cottage had windows only about 30 inches from earth to sill on the exterior; I put screws in for security and usually had the kitchen window open just high enough for Croesus the Cat. The landlady said his muddy feet (and Oregon is muddy) were staining the white paint, so I took a cloth, merely dampened, and gently wiped off the mud, to show her that she needn't worry. She didn't like the cat, because, when her short-legged dog chased him, Croesus just turned around in the corner of the yard and welcomed the dog to 20 sharp claws, sending him yiping (and giving him a wide berth thereafter). I remember her new car, too, a brand-new first edition Ford Mustang, now regarded as a classic, but merely pseudo-snazzy to my Berkeleyan inverse snobbery. No, I didn't tell her so. Yes, I always have regarded the Mustang as a middle-aged lady's sports car.
In any case, the cottage was my first free-standing residence, and it did permit me to play music without sharing it with the unappreciative, and it did garage my car. A student in architecture who played violin brought it and played it in the front room. Until you have heard a violin in a concrete-floor, 7-foot ceiling structure, you have no idea of how loud it actually is.
The cottage had one visual amenity. I had the kabuki-theater colors corduroy curtains that accompanied me from 2308 Haste in Berkeley, when my friend C. let me have the apartment for which they were made, to every place I lived in through to my first real house on E. 32nd Street in South Eugene.
My sister Lorna and her family, I'm almost sure, visited the cottage once; I remember the boys on the lawn. Writing this, I realize that I am not sure of the dates. Part of my life, which I thought of as making up for having had no adolescence (which, of course, is not true, but I had no adolescent 'social life') and which by the 1980s I regarded as typically Thirty-Something (even though I saw that TV program only once, I got the idea), took place in the cottage. Since nothing I did was illegal or even interesting and did not keep me from earning tenure, I am leaving all of it out of this blog; I merely assert that it was like everyone else's. I was ashamed of one episode, for all the typical reasons.
I already have spoken of my colleagues, whom I regarded highly. My colleague, Dean Mackenzie, who had been the teaching assistant when I started Art History at Berkeley, was now at Eugene, and, as professor emeritus, he still is there. But the cottage was no place to entertain, however simply, and generally evening parties in Eugene were for sets of married couples.