Friday, February 13, 2009

Delayed Response

Delayed Response
When I was a junior in high school my sister was in some sort of dire straits and she moved back home. My mother’s boyfriend had died the year before. I remember the 50s modern wood and glass counseling office at Grant High School but I don’t remember the name or face of the counselor who gave me a booklet from Johnston College, an alternative college that shared a campus with the University of Redlands. The cover had woodcuts in brown ink on rough paper and that it was printed so that half was upside down and there were two covers. Half the book was about something and the other half was about something else. I don’t remember what. But it was the neatest thing I’d ever seen.

I averred that I was wasting my time at Grant High School but I had some great teachers and I still remember things I learned there. When I was in my late twenties I was a summer administrator for an at- risk youth program and I was in charge of the campus at Grant. It was seeing the campus, years later and in lousy decline, that helped me appreciate the excellence of my education there. Back in the seventies though, it was of “the man” and stultifying and irrelevant and this was more dignified to say than, “Things are lousy at home.”

Johnston College had an early admissions program. I drove out to the campus and was thrilled by the hippies and dogs and co-ed dorms. At the time it was verboten to call hippies, hippies. You did this wink wink nod nod “cool people like us,” thing. I met some students, had lunch and was shown around by a slick admissions counselor who I believe was later fired for doing a disproportionate amount of recruiting in Hawaii. I may have met a faculty member but I don’t remember. It was a true alternative school. There were written evaluations instead of grades and students determined, in consort with a committee of faculty and students, their own objectives towards accomplishing graduation. Perhaps I am underestimating myself at seventeen but I think I went there because they took me, there were lots of guys with long hair and soulful eyes, and it seemed rooted enough in the principles of free love and universal acceptance that I might get a boyfriend.

I completed some interesting courses there. Thomas Merton and the Contemplative Life, Jewish Folktales, a comparative study of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence. I earned credit for studying textiles in Mexico and Russian Film History in London. I didn’t exactly bullshit my way through but I don’t think I applied myself terribly much. At least the course titles impressed my beloved, back a million years ago when we were courting and I was so intimidated by his geniuslikeness that I padded my own intellectual credentials.

I did a couple of big showy projects to get attention. Video was new then and we took the school’s camera down to the Lucky Market, a few blocks from campus, thinking we would get some extraordinary footage of how the simple minded Republicans of Ratlands hated us. Hairy legged in our peasant blouses and embroidered jeans we asked shoppers their opinion of Johnston College. No one had ever heard of the school.

Feeling unloved and dorky took precedence over any sort of intellectual flowering and relegated me to scholastic mediocrity. Just like high school, I pissed away most of the opportunities for intellectual challenge that Johnston provided, but I formed a couple of relationships that I still cherish, notably, with my most faithful reader Kaz and my economics professor Rosemary. While I might not have availed myself of the great opportunities for intellectual growth the unique little school afforded, there was the connection with Rosemary, and other female professors who cherished and nurtured their own intelligence which countered the lose weight and marry a rich man messages drilled into me in back home in Van Nuys.

I was in London in 1976 and saw Tir na nOg, an embarrassingly unctuous folk rock band with flowing locks, wearing brightly embroidered sheepskin vests, instead of the Sex Pistols, who played at the same venue that summer. I graduated college at age twenty, in 1977. The hippie thang was on the wane and this left me sort of rudderless. I started college aiming to full throttle glom onto a hippie identity and disassociate myself as much as possible from Fulton Avenue, where I never encountered such disgust as when I stopped shaving my armpits (which was very satisfying). By the time I graduated, tie-dye was an embarrassing anachronism. When I started college I yearned for hippiedom as an anchor but when I graduated there were no anchors at all and after being a hippie college poser I tried to reinvent myself in a number of other venues. Thirty years later, I’m still trying.

I attended one small local college reunion about 25 years ago. Earnest and employed and accompanied by an attractive, urbane gay friend and wearing a gorgeous borrowed broach of Mexican silver and black pants I’d dieted into, I felt myself very much a tribute to Johnston. I asked one of my former professors if I could be of service to my alma mater, thinking he’d be all over the chance to avail the school of the most excellent mind they’d molded. His curt and fastidiously honest response was that I could endow a chair. That put me in my place.

I haven’t been to a reunion since. I would be happy if either or both of my boys went to Johnston. We have gone to enormous lengths to enroll them in public charter schools that don’t crush the spirit of learning. I really didn’t flourish at Johnston and suffer the indelible visage of bare-breasted women (we called ourselves that but we were girls) building geodesic domes and the use of community activity funds to buy pot. The freedom I was given to chart my course, even though I navigated it with consistent mediocrity has more than paid off. I was inculcated with the real IT of the place, which is that the best education is one that inspires a commitment to a lifetime of learning.

The 40th anniversary of Johnston College is being celebrated with a reunion this weekend. I was on the fence but succumbed to (flattering) pressure to attend. After I booked my room, non-refundable through Priceline, at the Dynasty Motel, I suddenly felt hugely fat and failed and that the experience of wearing a nametag all weekend that says Layne Drebin, a name I haven’t used in nearly twenty years, would be tantamount to farting on a job interview or having a used Kotex stuck to my skirt, which is what happened to my friend Kim after cleaning out one of the filthy bathrooms at the scuzzy playhouse the kid’s theatre group rents.

I was a big loser at Johnston College but I was changed for the better for having gone there. I am an asshole to worry about the lines on my face and my saggy ass and to feel embarrassed by my hippie wannabe indiscretions. These hard times, that so many of us are gaping jawed to find ourselves in, tempt me to discredit the journey. I disavowed Johnston and my young young self for many years. But, flabby, old, obscure, and even less able than I was twenty-five years ago to endow a friggin’ chair I have still done my alma mater proud. More than thirty years have passed since I graduated, a vapid dilettante, but I am a late bloomer and my dabblings there sprouted into to other curiosities along the road. Johnston, for all of the embarrassment that remembering myself there evokes, informed (my beloved and essential editor I believe will dislike my usage of “informed” here and perhaps will suggest an alternative) my journey. The founders of Johnston dreamed of melding us to become like I have become. Like I am becoming.

I’ve been working with some folks on a kids cooking show and it’s been dormant for a while. The day before departing for D.C., I get the news that an extremely high-powered television producer and on-screen talent wants to meet with us about the show. We are advised that a written treatment and script are inadequate and that we would need to bring a demo of the show. The demo is written while I am in Washington and is shot it in my kitchen on my birthday. I contribute very little to it, except for the original premise. The results are quite charming and remarkably good considering it was produced in less than a week with no resources.

I research Mr. Big Shit Producer and find that he has done tons of work as an on- screen host and has produced many shows. The programs, I notice are without exception cheaply produced and excruciating to watch but have made him extremely wealthy. I practice playing the demo on my laptop and make sure that the audio level is set so as not to blast out eardrums. I spend hours designing a label for the DVD and choosing the perfect font for the treatment. I change my outfit six times before leaving for the meeting. I tell the 16-year-old that a zillion good things get pitched and never produced. I know that the intermediary to Mr. Big Shit Producer is a semi-retired game show creator whose son is a big literary agent. I speculated that Mr. Big Shit Producer might just be taking breakfast with the game show veteran for old time’s sake and that in exchange for letting the old man still feel part of the biz, the big producer would be able to hold forth about his ginormous dick for a while. I may not have used the word “dick” while musing about this possibility to the 16-year-old but I probably did.

I would like to say now that the demo was a huge hit and we’re getting a zillion dollars and going into production next week. I take little satisfaction in being so damned prescient. The old t.v. game show guy is sweet. He started as a page at NBC and went on to work on the infamous "21" which set off the quiz show scandal. Mr. Big Shit Producer informs us in the first five minutes, that while our idea is cute it is of no interest to him. Because I’m not demoralized enough, when I tell him I own a stock footage library, he tells me he never uses stock footage because you always get sued. We are manacled to a table at Jerry’s Deli way the fuck out in Canoga Park politely listening to Mr. Big Shit Producer, the price for his largesse at looking at our three minute demo. Lots of game show talk. I learned that for forty dollars a crack there are live game shows in Las Vegas and Indian Casinos. He enjoys hosting these because he is well compensated and can get “a little risqué." He recites his extremely bicoastal schedule day by day for the next four weeks. He slams his fist on the table at my wrongness when I suggest that viewers of video on the internet are starting to expect higher production value.

We are disappointed but the show’s not dead. From the failed attempt to get people to show their ignorant prejudice about my hippie college to excruciating pitch meetings it seems like years of wheel spinning. I would have taken any bone that Mr. Big Shit Producer may have thrown but his productions are still crap and what does it mean to be rich and famous if you need to get off by lionizing yourself to captive strangers in a mediocre valley deli? I suppose a more favorable response might have motivated me to find something to like about him and the lack of bone tossing does make it easier to feel superior.

The drive to Redlands takes twice as long now as it did in the 1970s. The orange groves have been replaced with beige stucco six bedroom homes, the price of this spaciousness paid for by a life on the freeway. The illustrious alumna, I am debating whether to take the ancient Volvo with the bum transmission but leather seats and a good stereo or the mechanically sound slightly less ancient Volvo with the tinny radio and mud and gravy stains on the light cloth upholstery. It would be cool for the dork loser girl to return renowned and prosperous after thirty years. It would be cool when asked what it is I do to say, “I just sold a series to…” It would be cool to wake up all smooth and liposuctioned.

Maybe it sounds better to be an Eli but I am a Johnstonian and the folks who envisioned that place wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass about the shitty Volvos or saggy asses and I guess I can blame my own pre-reunion regrets on the recession. I will be arrive in a funky car but I will arrive rich beyond the dreams of the seventeen-year-old who slept in a rickety loft in the West Hall Dorm and was publicly ridiculed for owning a toy poodle (Gladys) instead of a big hearty bandanna wearing dog. Even though I was an indifferent student it was there I began to value my intellect and glean that nurturing it did not preclude sexiness or fun. I have no fortune to boast of but freed of the shackles of Fulton Avenue, I have done work that I'm proud of. Some of my fellow alums will arrive in fancier cars and with fatter bank accounts and firmer butts. Some of them will endow a friggin’ chair. But there will be no one in attendance who cherishes a mate more than I cherish Himself or is loved more than I am loved or who has more spectacular loving hilarious children or who takes such sweet pleasure to find a loved one’s note of praise beneath the words I write.
Shabbat Shalom.


Fionnchú said...

I liked the part about your devotion in defiance of countercultural fascism to Gladys the best. Let your freak flag fly even if it's not a bandanna (with Ché on it?). Bryn Mawr always captivated me when I saw the name on a S.B. County map when young. "Big Hill" does not translate as snappily. I wish the oranges still graced its slope. Sweet dreams over there, and I await your return from tract-home sprawl to our humble abode. xxx me

harry said...

Two Volvos and thoughts of inadequacy? Dudette, I cried because I had no shoes and met a man with no feet. You are an accomplished, urbane grande dame, and you take second to none. I liked the hippie palimpsest artifactions.... naming renaming going back to names that were wrong then but right now. Truth is a many layered thing.