Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Blast from my Past - Instars and Other Times - 1978

INSTARS AND OTHER TIMES                                                                 1978

He is the Truth.
Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety; 
You will come to a great city 
That has expected your return for years.


The idea of "connection" was charged with mysterious significance for Thomas Merton.

David SteindlRast, O.S.B.

After the Kiwanis Show I decided I didn't want to be a salesman any longer. That was in April and, six months later, in the winter of 1974, 1 returned to Davis as a parttime student. Before the quarter started I drove up to visit "the House," a freeform counseling and support center between the health center and the high-rise dorms. It was warm for late winter and the counselorincharge was outside working on his Volkswagen. He wore denim jeans and a blue shirt embroidered with a peace symbol on the shoulders. He had a ponytail and a beard. We talked and I told him I was worried about coming back to college and being older. Were there other students like me on the campus and would there be a place for me? He squatted down to look closely at a part of the engine that was lying on the grass next to his car and then turned to look at me, "Don't worry about fitting in here, it is a big campus and there are a lot of different people. You don't have to worry about it." He turned back to replace a greasy part on his car. "You should see some of the Bozos we have around here." I folded my arms: "Are you really able to help these Bozos who come to you for help?" He looked surprised as he stood up and started to scratch his neck. "Hell man," he said, "I don't know. I'm just another Bozo." I looked at my watch and realized that I had to get back to Fairfield. As I walked over to the parking lot I wondered about it; were we all a bunch of Bozos?

Shortly after New Years I moved to Davis. First to the Americana Apartments on F street, which looked like a 1954 convalescent hospital, and then in the spring to a new apartment at Oxford Parkside on Wake Forest Drive. Winter Quarter I took English 45 [Critical Reading of Poetry], and Religious Studies 137 [Religious Biography], where I learned about Hagiography and Gandhi in Africa and Luther in sitting meditation. I dropped English. Spring quarter I took an English class and an American Studies class on Religion. I dropped English but the class in American Studies was different. The professor spent the first day talking about what the class might be covering, He wasn't sure. It would depend what people wanted to read or learn about. Last year several students had done a presentation to the class on the bars of Davis, using slides and tape. He asked if there were any questions and told a guy with glasses in the first row that the syllabus wasn't ready yet. Then a woman in the front row asked about his own religious beliefs. I was surprised about that. But Dave Wilson smiled and proceeded to answer her. I don't remember exactly what he said but I remember thinking he was good. He was standing there in front of these students on the first day of class and he wasn't acting like a teacher. He was saying things I had often hopes to hear in church, but he didn't sound like a churchman; he was really smart but he didn't sound like an academic, he could have passed for a fireman. And his face kept changing; first he would be smiling and quoting Jonathan Edwards, and then he would frown and talk about the way his body felt after a day walking in the mountains. You could watch him think. There were a few other questions and then it was ten-fifty and time to end the class.

I stayed in that class and we talked about the Noosphere and Ben Franklin as a Saint and norm versus normative and "signals of transcendence" and plausibility structures and we read Poor Richard's Almanac and The Exorcist and A Rumor of Angels. I wrote a final exam about a friend who went through several radical changes in self-image, without once looking at the possibilities of living outside of an image.  The paper was well written and a bit snide, and I got an A for it.

I spent the summer of 1974 pleasantly. I played a lot of tennis and worked part-time and went camping with a friend who had a trailer on a new lake near Nevada City. We would play tennis at the club in the morning and swim in the afternoon at a beach with metal umbrellas next to the clubhouse. I reread Jaws that summer. When the summer was over I decided to enrol as a full-time student and I registered for two classes in English, one in Human Sexuality and an Introduction to American Studies. In late September I returned to Davis. .

I went to the Library early on the first day of classes and I was in the browsing room looking for the newest issue of Punch when Lorraine spoke to me. She was the woman who had sat in the front row on the first day of Dave's class the previous spring. We talked about being older students and she said she was adjusting to it. Then we went up to the American Studies Library on the eighth floor of Sproul Hall, where they had a corner room full of books and some comfortable chairs and coffee for the students. And we sat and drank coffee and talked with several people whom I had met before about F. Scott and Zelda and sex roles and company towns and folk music and then I dropped all my class except one and added several classes in American Studies and changed my major.

American Studies 45 was a small class and was conducted as a seminar. I looked at the other students who were sitting on the builtin sofa that hugged the walls in the new "soft" classroom in Olson Hall. When I ate on Campus I usually went to the Memorial Union Dining Commons. These people went to the coffee house. The class had team teachers; Merline, who looked like a cross between Ava Gardner as an intellectual and an earth mother, and Jay, who was from the East. My first assignment was due in three weeks.

That fall I found a roommate with an apartment in a complex at 1905 Anderson who was interested in tennis and sex. He left every morning at six for a few sets before class and every Friday he would leave for a weekend of protracted debauchery in Marin County which he would tell me about every Sunday night, in detail. I spent a lot of time reading at the Library that quarter.

The evening before my first paper was due for 45 1 went to the coffee house. People were sitting reflectively on the glass porch as I sat down with my coffee and started rereading the section of the text I was to write on. I wasn't sure how to write the paper. There had been three papers presented so far. the first had been scholarly, the second was a "pop" story and the third was about how the author was unable to write about what he wanted to write. That paper was taken the most seriously. I decided to combine all three styles. I wrote about Shirley Temple and intersubjective sedimentation and family dinners with an undertone of anomie. That was one of the words we were using that fall in 45 and 140A. We were talking about inner and other and tradition and non-directed. We read Social Construction of Reality and Grand Theory and Small is Beautiful and Thomas Szaz and R.D.Lang and "Boyology." We talked about roles and realities and students and teachers and group dynamics. And that was when Jay was tap dancing in front of the eastern windows in the hallway in the eighth floor of Sproul Hall and I realized that we had a rather odd reputation with some People in the English department.

Although we didn't have a white Christmas that year, I came down with a hot gall bladder and took incompletes in both 45 and 140A. The surgery was set for February and I asked for winter quarter incompletes in March. Bob Meredith said that if I would repeat his 140B class the following fall there would be no problem, but when I went to Merline one Friday afternoon to ask her for an "I" grade for 110 [Introduction to cross-cultural studies], she said "No." She said, "I won't help you to be weak, You're easily strong enough to do this paper and to complete 45 as well, If you want help to do this work I will help you, but I will not and cannot help you to be weak. You are better than that!" I decided over the weekend to try to do the paper. I interviewed a man I had known for several years who had grown up in Holland. I started out by asking simple questions and then things started making sense and I got better answers and I made some good connections and I wrote it all down and it was a good paper.

That was the quarter when I met people who didn't think the kingdom of God would have a Country Club Suburb. I met people who talked about being feminists, or growing up Jewish in Beverly Hills. I found myself with people who did mushrooms and yoga. I smoked dope with several aging boy scouts and I met a woman who was best known for a poster that said "Resist!''

When the spring came and the weather got warmer I was living in a house on Road 102 with a guy from the law school and a woman who was pre-vetinary and spending my Monday and Wednesday afternoons sitting in the backyard without a shirt discussing "Problems and Solutions in American Culture" at Dave and Bonnie Wilson's. That was the spring we talked about bee-keeping as mediational politics and Ann Landers and sex and the creative urge and bibliography and museums and nursing and God. I was talking about God. First I was going to write a critique on evangelistic Christian groups and show where they went wrong, but that went nowhere. I told Dave I couldn't do it and he suggested reading Jonathan Edwards and I said that I didn't want to do that, then he suggested I write my own manual for finding God and he seemed to be serious, so I said I would think about it and left.

I went back to the house I was sharing on Road 102. 1 lay back on my bed and wondered what I could write about. I am not sure what happened next except that I didn't worry about looking like a student because what I was saying and the people I was speaking to were more important than that; so I reread a bit of Peter Berger and some Thomas Merton and I started to write a long poem called "How to Know God." I finished it in two days and I was very proud of it.

After the last class meeting of 140A there was a pot luck at somebody's house and people brought casseroles and salads and fruits of the vine and herbs of the field and after dinner we sang folks songs and protest songs and camp songs and I sang a couple of songs I had written several years before including one for the Kiwanis show and everybody laughed and said how much they liked that side of me. I remember sitting back in a chair towards the end of the evening and thinking, "and next year we are going to be seniors together.''

I smoked a lot of dope in the summer of 1975. I was in Fairfield and I would sit quietly in the evening, slightly buzzed thinking about what I wanted to write about in the coming year and when fall came around I really wasn't ready but neither was anyone else.

That fall I decided I wanted to write about Christianity and the world we were living in, My year in American Studies had changed me. I saw that the church did not speak to many people; either it did not admit their existence or its message was couched in terms that were meaningless outside the block of conservative churchgoers that were the majority of Christian America. I wanted to say that Christianity was more than that, but I didn't know how. When the time came in early October to present the initial plans for senior projects I wrote three pages of possibilities. and when we met for discussion several people said that the pages were like three different sides of me. I said I wanted to wrote about sanctity. Harold said I ought to write a job description for a saint; Robert said that he saw more energy and I ought to write a flashy paper. Dixie suggested that I write a play and Bruce told me to get into my "bad boy." I became very serious and told everybody that I had spent a lot of my life being "clever" and now I wanted to do something that was "serious.'' Robert told me that he thought that was heavy owning on my part and that he would support me on that, but that Robert Frost had said to do the light things seriously and the seriously things lightly. When the day was over I was exhausted. I was amazed at how well we all knew each other and how much we accepted each other. One year together had created a community out of a group of quite different people. It was going to be a good year.

I finished up Robert’s 140D class that fall. Robert was “into getting clear” by then and the class was very close to a therapy group. He said we were "doing" the humanities rather than just studying about them. Often American Studies had pushed my definition of what was educational but this was too much. I wrote a ballad called "Doing the Middle Class," and a folk song called "The Gestalt Rag" and Robert said he felt anxiety when he heard it. I wrote over fifty pages in a journal for the class. "Robert," I wrote, " I see you as being a total egotist, totally concerned with self. I don’t like you and I think you do a lot of power plays with other peoples heads." He wrote "Far Out! Be That!" in the margins. I wrote, "Robert, you and your class bore me." He wrote "Fuck You!" And I wrote over fifty pages explaining why I didn't agree with Fritz Perls and why I didn’t like the class and I ended up learning quite a lot.

Just before Christmas that year I moved back to Davis to a junior one bedroom at Oxford Parkside. I had not done much work on my project but everyone else seemed to be in the same fix. We sat in the Library and talked about William Irwin Thompson and John Cage and Women's Studies and the University as a middle class institution and we drank coffee and made disparaging remarks about the campus newspaper and the mural that the junior class had painted on two walls of the new library which was next to the old Library which was now Gerry's office, and that was when Gerry walked into the women's bathroom and found Dixie and Dave and Linda and me passing a joint and discussing the possibility of a departmental orgy.

Early in winter we had a senior retreat and went to Merline’s sister's house near Lake Tahoe and Harold Spice and I went to the Casino's at south shore and while he played craps I walked around getting drunk and watching the Ladies with blue hair masturbating the slot machines and thinking "this is what is wrong with America!" It was a great weekend and I remember absolutely no work being done.

I made lots false starts on my project. First I did try to do serious work, then called a meeting to announce that I would write a musical comedy. Finally I decided to write a collection of poetry that would be the Gospel according to Me" and several people told me that this would be the best idea yet. I wrote a few poems and then things seemed to slow down and I couldn't seem to start up again. I wrote a letter to the senior class and faculty and told then I decided to be practical and change my project and write something about Thomas Merton. Several people told me that they were sorry and Bruce got quite mad and told me that I had no guts and I had no right to back down from the risk of writing the poetry. That was why we were there. He said that "this is no place to play safe!''

On Good Friday of 1976 1 drank coffee and had a few Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in the morning and then I fasted until three PM. I stayed in the browsing room and watched people and kept an eye on the clock and wondered what it was all about, and I finally wrote some good poems about crucifixion and political action and pop culture and false prophets and death and rainbows. Afterwards Mark and I were walking over to the Coffee House and stopped to watch the Davis Cal Aggie Marching Band practicing in the street in front of North Hall. I was thinking, "how holy we all are," and Mark touched me on the left shoulder and asked me why I was crying and I got embarrassed and said something about “signals of transcendence" and we walked to the Coffee House.

I turned thirty on the day before Easter. I had thought of having a party where I would lay in beduntil midnight, receiving guests in whispers, dying to my twenties, and then at midnight I would get out of bed while my guests would chant "He is risen'' loudly. Then I decided to go to the monastery in Santa Barbara and spend the weekend in silence. As it ended up I went with Shelly and Bruce to dinner at Mark and Robin's and when we got there over 30 people were there to surprise me! It was a great party and later I gave a speech based on Peter Berger; I said that people made things: events, institutions and each other, and that night all these people made me very happy; that I thanked them, I gave thanks for them, and I loved them.

That spring I was first kazoo in Dixie's Washboard Band. At first I was cautious with my kazoo and then I blew it gracefully, playing around with the melody, highlighting tones that were in the songs. It was graceful footstomping, shitkicking music. I remember thinking “I am a grace foot-stomping, shit-kicker." And I was surprised that this didn't surprise me.

I was one of the first in my class to turning the final version of my senior project; a collection of poems, meditations and prose grouped loosely around the theme of being Christian in modern America. I had thought of calling it "Pentecost Poems'' but ended up calling it, "In a Word, Yes." I had written some good things but it was not really finished. Originally I had thought of adding a preface that would explain what these offerings were about and then an afterword about the conclusions that I had reached. But I realized that I had made no conclusions and that all I had were more questions. I decided to turn it in as it was. For the most part it was well received by the class although Dave and Merline felt that I had drawn back from making the connections that logically followed my work. I was glad it was almost summer.

That summer I stayed at Oxford Parkside until my lease ran out and I smoked dope and tanned by the pool and talked with Tim and Jan and Lynda and Joan and Mark and Bruce for awhile about possibilities and choices and consequences, about city planning and Indian artifacts and good work and good dope and bisexuality and the bicentennial and Utopian schemes and graduate schools. And then I interviewed for a job as advertising manager for Unitrans, the student bus line, and I got the job and I was selling again. I was glad that my time in American Studies was almost over. It had been interesting and I had learned a lot, but now it was time to make some money and take the classes I needed to graduate and get ready to study for Anglican Priesthood. I was looking forward to the job with the Associated Students. These would be the kind of people I would find in parish work, this was the mainstream of America.

There was a Unitrans party at the end of the summer and I told someone there that my major had been America Studies. "They're a little far out sometimes," I smiled, "but I enjoyed it. And we talked about grades and route changes and MBA programs and the politics of student government and I ended up outside smoking dope with some guy with a ponytail

I signed up for six units of Spanish and an Anthropology class and a class on Religious Ethics and a seminar that Jay was giving on Peter Berger that fall. I told friends in American Studies that I was working for the Associated Students and that they "were really different over there." I moved out of Oxford Parkside and was staying with my parents house in Fairfield until. November when my new apartment would be ready on Alvarado Avenue. That was the time when Dolores gave a party and I asked her new housemate what he thought of American Studies and he said, "I really don't know but it looks a lot like Doonesbury to me." And I really didn't know how to take it.

It was not a good fall. I didn't attend many meetings of the Berger seminar and when I did they were talking about modernity and mediating structures and privatization of consciousness and a lot of other things that didn't seem interesting to me. I tired to write a paper on Berger's theology for the class. I read all that I could find but I couldn't bring it together. I remember talking one day in class about a theology that wasn't a theodicy; not "how" or "why" the world was, but somehow just "that" it was. I kept getting caught in the words and I took a lot of incompletes that fall.

My family took a house on the beach at Aptos for Christmas that year but things didn't get any better. On Christmas day I sat and watched the waves coming in and I wrote, "I don't know what to do anymore. I don't see a place where I fit in, a structure that I can make sense with. I'm sitting here wondering Why about just about everything.''

Things fell apart after that. I enrolled in a few classes and tried to give it the old college try but it didn't work out and I never really expected that it would. I wasted a lot of time and I kept thinking "I need to get a way from here." And then one morning at eight I sat in the Memorial Union Dining Commons and wrote the following.

Here I am again, boys and girls, wondering and watching and waiting. Looking at the big Why in the sky. So here I am again, with the second cup of coffee, railing against the American myth of directed consciousness, trying to find the better way again. I herewith and therefore exorcise the technocratic telos and turn toward the significant other who hovers brightly beyond the pale constructions of reality. Ban the bomb, bible and booklearning; today let's see without looking, hear without listening, and speak without filling our world with printable, purposeful prose which points to no avail. Let us be prophets without profit. Here and now, let's finally find our place. For God's sake and ours let's forget and remember and realize that whether we know it or not, all things, deep down in their most hidden selves are unutterably right. And here I am again.''

And so I read what I had written and I thought about it for awhile. I talked to some people at American Studies and a psychiatrist at the Health Center and a woman in the Dean's Office: and in March I withdrew from UC Davis and went to visit a monastery. But that is another story.

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