Friday, February 21, 2014

My Old School

I attended, as my elder son attends, college in Redlands. This is not the verdant Sierra adjacent burgh that it is often confused with. It is Redlands. There are no redwoods. My diploma says “Johnston College” and Joe College's will read “Johnston Center for Integrative Studies.” “The University of Redlands” will likely appear somewhere on his sheepskin. It does not appear on mine. As “Johnston College” is about as obscure as it gets, for clarification I add that the school is on the campus of The University of Redlands but is a separate institution. This was the case when I attended. Now however, it is no longer officially independent and Johnston is now formally a University of Redlands entity. This change occurred in 1980 after a chain of events so unspeakable that now, even after thirty plus years, it is still painful to discuss. The absorption of Johnston College into the University of Redlands is something I am likely to obfuscate.

The institution, born of the free speech movement and the cataclysmic effect it had on academia, opened its doors in 1969 and I enrolled in 1973. The school is so small that there are no formal class reunions, only celebrations of the anniversary. This year is the 45th reunion, “The Renewal.” To illustrate the tininess of the school, Himself is sitting in the motel lobby near a group of alums. He eagerly reports, “there's a woman with hair just like yours.” At a Santa Cruz or Bennington reunion, there would be scads of 50ish women with curly gray hair. As Johnston is so very puny I immediately respond, “Oh, it's Lenny.” I am, of course, correct. I will add also that Himself describes my hair as “frizzy” which, thanks to an substantial investment in products, it is not. It is curly. As is Lenny's.

I was seventeen when I enrolled at Johnston in lieu of completing the twelfth grade. I was supposed to take some concurrent high school classes but I never bothered to. This came back to bite me when I was preparing to graduate and I had to go to the Board of Education offices in L.A. and submit to the GED. To my seventeen year old self, enrolling in Johnston was a political statement. Surely, my parents, had they ever visited the campus, would have been made apoplectic by the industrial size bottles of Quell shampoo for pubic lice in the co-ed bathrooms or the cabal of topless women erecting a geodesic dome. Hindsight can be so sadly lucid. I enrolled in Johnston because there were guys with long hair, it was a way to get out of a tumultuous home and most importantly, because they took me.

I am one of two alums who has a kid attending the college. This is more to my advantage than I foresee. Casamurphy is the L.A. satellite for Johnston and I am blessed to have met a number of the current students. At the risk of oversimplifying, my peers and I attended Johnston in order to make a statement to the world. The current crop is more individualistic and has nothing really to prove. Ironically, I think the current student body's choice of the school brings them closer in spirit to the original vision of the founders. I adore these kids and am as delighted to see them as I am my own classmates.

I foolishly compressed my baccalaureate work into three years and spent a great deal of that time living off the campus. My expectation that the school would fill every void in my life was unrealistic. I mistakenly attributed this to the institution itself and therefore retreated. As desperate as I was to flee the nest, my own son had trepidations about setting off to college. As we loaded up his car I tried to explain to him the giddy euphoria I experienced when I packed my Joni Mitchell albums, madras print bedspread and patched blue jeans into my 1967 Dodge Dart and hit the San Bernardino Freeway in September of 1974. He sighed, unable to muster even the slightest enthusiasm. “Maybe,” he posited sadly, “it's because I had a happy childhood.” I am glad to report that after a shaky couple of weeks the boy settled in. He is making of the experience what I wish I had been able to.

I was too damaged to make the most of Johnston when I was there but my way-late blooming was indeed nurtured by seeds sown at Johnston. I beam at all the attention I get for being the mother of my (far less awkward than I was) son. But also I am surprised by the extent to which I was apparently not invisible. So many of my college memories are steeped in being a non-entity but a number of people remind me of having seen a 16mm print of The Harder they Come at my cabin in Forest Falls. This would indeed have been a social coup but I have no memory of it. Another alum remembers that I introduced her to quesadillas. Others still mention my little toy poodle Gladys, a wonderful dog. I took a lot of flack because poor Gladys wasn't a burly bandana wearing mutt and sometimes when I went into L.A. my mother would snatch her up for grooming which included a shorn snout and pom pom tail.

A memorial board rests on an easel. Names I haven't heard in decades. To many I can attach a face. Professors, classmates, people I would have liked to know better and people I found insufferable. They are all so young in my mind's eye. How can they all have died? I feel small and strangely guilty for not having known about the death and life of each and every one. So many universes radiate out of our tiny college.

There are a handful of alums I can identify without seeing their name tags. For others the passage of time has been less kind. There are a few people I liked who seem perhaps to have been dealt some hardship or misery and now after 40 years I find less likable. A handful of people I remember as being angry or brittle are now at ease and jocular. Mostly though the essence of the living is much as I remember it. I guess I'm not all that much different myself except that now I shave my legs and better conceal my social anxiety.

The kids I know are wonderful and cheerfully dance with me when I drunkenly drag them onto the dance floor. “Why do they think that the 70's alums only want to hear The Jefferson Airplane?” I bleat over a throbbing version of White Rabbit. We are looking for a discussion about Bhutan and I mistake the abbreviation HOL with the Johnston dormitory Holt instead of the Hall of Letters. A student approaches and curtly asks if we are alums. I reply affirmatively and instead of the warm response I am used to, she officiously barks that we are not permitted in the dorm without a student escort. I mutter, “Thanks for your warmth” under my breath. Perhaps, in forty years there will be another reunion and this girl too will have evolved to easy and jocular.

Joe College is the manager of the coffee house that I started on the campus. They still serve quesadillas. There is a full schedule of events there during the reunion and for one block the boy has carefully planned a DJ set. I'm sure I am completely mis-categorizing it but I would describe the music he plays as techno or shoe gazer. He has definitely inherited the Murphy family's musical pedantry. The 70s gang are all in bed, myself included, but some of the younger grads are drinking at the coffee house as he spins. Joe College reports to me that he has a bit of a buzz on himself. He is pestered by a woman to play some rock and roll. The boy demurs and tells her that his set has been preplanned. She persists. Joe College at this point becomes annoyed and reports to me that he responds with a mild jab about the woman's age. I do not fully interrogate him about exactly what he said and I will add in fairness that often the boy's jabs are more harsh than he chooses to admit and perhaps too that he underestimates the degree of his own buzz. Nevertheless there are no words in the universe that could merit the woman's response to the perceived slight. She pulls down her pants, yanks out a tampon and flings it at Joe College's face. Rather anticlimactically her friends remove her and later return to the coffee house. They apologize profusely to Joe College and make a sizable donation to the school.

Less horrifying is the Founder's Brunch. After my devastation at the memorial board it is a relief to see how many of my former professors are among the living and even vigorous. The mike is passed around and there are poignant and eloquent remembrances of how the college came to exist and the vision of what education could be that inspired it. The University of Redlands was, at the time of Johnston's founding, a very conservative institution and there was friction from the beginning. It is recounted that when the Johnston faculty participated in a candlelight peace vigil under the aegis of a local Christian church that the president of the University went ballistic. This despite a 1972 accreditation report that states “Johnston College faculty is among its strongest assets… this is one of the most elite faculties for undergraduate students anywhere in the country.” It is noted too that the great-granddaughter of the same president who was so aghast at the peace march is currently enrolled at Johnston.

I am not the only alumni who is wistful about not having taken full advantage of the elite faculty. We encourage Joe College to make the most of it and he is smart enough to stay on campus and attend for four full years. Himself has no involvement with his alma mater but via marriage, parenthood and a seminar he attended last summer he is an honorary Johnstonian. It is very gratifying that he gets it. I have trouble explaining to others what an extraordinary place this is. I am reading now the Alexandria Quartet in preparation for a Johnston alumni seminar we will be attending during the summer. This is being facilitated by Professor Emeritus Bill McDonald with whom I took a course about D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. Much of the Woolf was above my head and probably still is but McDonald's rigor changed the way I read forever. This was a catalyst to the writing I struggle with now, which aside from having a good marriage and kids who consider their childhood's as having been happy, is my life's most satisfying accomplishment.

I know you can't get over the tampon thing and perhaps it is out of place in this piece. I don't want to gloss over Johnston though. It does attract likely more than its share of misfits. Perhaps there is hope for the snotty girl in the Holt dormitory. Who knows, maybe even tampon lady will find her own way (although I find it hard to imagine that this wouldn't include a course of heavy psychotropic drugs.) Anyway, I did more drinking than I usually do so I may have been a broken record saying, “Johnston is like your family. You love them, but they sure embarrass you.”

Friday, February 7, 2014

Raisin Challah

I cannot overstate the significance of the Silver Lake Trader Joe's. Just about everything I know about people in the neighborhood, which according to the local council, we are no longer permitted to refer to as the Eastside, I have gleaned by bumping into friends while stocking up on Joe Joes and fat free feta. Last week I described a friend's efforts to extract her car from the notorious parking lot while her son, experiencing a psychotic episode, careened down Hyperion. I have learned that the annex lot, half a block a way, is less treacherous and I am returning to my car there when Spuds calls. “Have you heard anything from Bard?” he asks. I immediately think drug bust or expulsion but he goes on to tell me that two girl students have been killed in nearby Tivoli. As they walk down the highway to catch a late night shuttle back to campus, an intoxicated driver plows them down and flees the scene. I am lucky to have parked in the less conspicuous parking lot as I completely lose it to the point where I hear Spuds, usually quite composed, snarfling a bit himself on the other end. After his own horrifying freeway accident last summer it is such a comfort to dump Spuds in a dinky town and without a car. I think of the girls' parents getting that call. Years ago the president of Bard lost his own daughter, near the campus, to a drunk driver. We saw her grave when we visited. I will never resign myself to how powerless I am to keep my children from harm's way. I weep with relief that my own boy is safe and the sense of the unimaginable path of grief in store for two other mothers.

Bard is a tiny school so this is a hard, hard hit. Spuds himself is also in Tivoli the night of the accident but a friend drives him back to campus. Spuds knows the girls very casually but his roommate has known one since childhood, and oddly the other hails from Chicago and attended high school with one of Joe College's Redlands friends. There are campus vigils and days of grief counseling. Spuds is shaken but acknowledges that the girls were not his close friends. He notes the propensity of his peers, particularly those of the female gender, to over-dramatize and inflate their connections to the victims of such tragedies.

When Spuds was in high school, he befriended a quirky kid that most of the others on campus considered to be a colossal pain in the butt. One of his college essays describes discovering a commonality with the boy through their mutual love of music. Several months later the boy took his own life. Spuds was called upon to eulogize him. Kids had never given the boy the time of day wept copiously, sort of an un-dry run at genuine grief. Perhaps this experience has helped Spuds keep his own emotional perspective on the death of the two Bard students.

I am driving home the following day and my phone explodes with calls and text messages. Phillip Seymour Hoffman has died of an overdose. Hoffman was the subject of another of Spuds' college essays. Spuds witnessed Hoffman being mugged at 2:00 a.m. from the window of a 5th story flat we'd rented in Greenwich Village. He'd called the police and waited with Hoffman until he was composed enough to return to his own apartment across the street. Even without the fleeting personal connection, both of the sprats adore Hoffman and they are unsettled by his death.

I know that the week's sorrow is transitory and that perhaps a small comfort is that these sorrows are toughening their skins. I am thankful that they reach out to each other and also to me at times of sadness and of joy too. Joe College texts me a few months ago to discreetly announce, in what I imagine is quite a departure from the standard 21 year old lexicon, that he and a girl I am particularly fond of are now “an item.” He calls me this week and joyfully announces that he has been chosen as a Residence Advisor for the next year, which entails dealing with lost keys and crises in the dormitory in exchange for free room and board.

Work study employment has eluded Spuds. Because he is quite experienced in film handling he has reached out to the director of the campus film archive. The professor has been on sabbatical and has just returned to campus. Spuds makes an appointment and I provide a bit of reference material and drill him a bit on some practices and terminology. It has snowed nearly every day and the romance of this has worn very thin with the boy. He trudges across campus for his meeting at the film archive, waits for an hour before deciding he's been stood up. He emails the professor politely requesting to reschedule and receives a terse, unapologetic response instructing him to meet up after a late night screening. Spuds says he has lots of homework and that it's freezing. I tell him that if he's getting a bad vibe that he shouldn't pursue it. I look up the screening schedule and see that there's a short, a silent feature and a two hour artsy Polish film all followed by a discussion with the director. The silent is Murnau's Sunrise which is, given the length of the program,  about the same time that it will end. Maybe Spuds can try for something in the library or the cafeteria.

Spuds calls me the next day and reports that after rushing through his classwork, he makes his way over to the archive. After a crappy week, there is a stroke of luck. The director of the Polish film, along with the 35mm print, are no show, resulting in a good program of reasonable length. Spuds catches up with the professor finally who he actually finds to be very pleasant. And I doubt if many of the other students are able to chat about edge dating, vinegar syndrome and optical sound. The professor is overjoyed when he learns Spuds is a freshman, “so we'll have you with us for four years.”

The Trader Joe's has challah now and sometimes I buy it there. Unfortunately, the bathroom is often being cleaned and therefore inaccessible so I often cross the street to Gelson's instead. When the kids were in preschool we stopped there Friday mornings (back when it was still called Mayfair) for Shabbat challah and flowers. While Joe College's first sentence was “At night we see stars,” the more practical Spuds said “Tomorrow we go to Mayfair.” There was a guy we called “the angel man” who blathered on to the kids. He was creepy but never to the extent that justified a demand to have him 86ed. Now when I stop there the challah I buy is a tiny one, the size of a sandwich roll and it has raisins, which the kids dislike. Nursery school families are still here shopping for the pre-school Shabbat. The parents are weary from attending to the vigilance that this age group requires. I could proclaim to them how fast it all goes by but they are too exhausted to drink it in and anyway, they'd think I'm just as creepy as the angel man. Our shabbat table at home, with our teeny challah is set now just for two. I suppose that some day this might not make me sad. We light the candles and I bless the sprats from afar, a different manifestation of eternal vigilance.