Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Still leap-frogging back through time ...

Learned a lot in the academic community that made my next important life transition far simpler. It's true that I met a few lifetime friends, people with whom I'd never have ever met under ordinary circumstances. That had been somewhat true of my years in Walnut Creek, since that life was as different from the environments of my childhood or even my early years as a young married in Berkeley. But the life of being a university wife as well as worker, stood light years away from anything that had gone before and demanded some unprecedented stretching.

The years in the suburbs produced its own rhythms, deep involvement in an emerging community, car-pooling, exchanging cuttings for the garden, taking ballroom dancing classes at the country club, training Jr. League types for fund-raising fashion shows (I'd modeled and trained models in S.F. at one time); all of the stereotypes I'd lived. Drove a series of wood-paneled station wagons, traded swimming pool serviceman with others. Did the den mother things with Cub Scouts -- until I realized that all the boys really wanted was the uniform. By the time it was David's turn to join, I just went down to Sears and bought the regalia -- skipped the awards part entirely (for shame!). Spent the first summer with walnut-dyed hands from not knowing that to remove the outer husk without rubber gloves was a disaster only time could correct. (You could tell the new folks to the community by our black fingernails and the fact that we wore glove under all weather conditions.)

But the rituals of the university were just as clearly drawn. Case in point:

A lovely practice turned up in the earliest weeks of our relationship. We'd rise on Sunday morning, Bill would often prepare breakfast -- we ordinarily grabbed a bite on the run or eat in the small coffee shops around campus. Sundays were different. This was the time when we'd brunch after a long morning of reading the Sunday paper and working the crossword puzzles, sheer luxury after the breakneck schedule of the work that taxed us both. The experiment was being conducted on five different high school campuses in two counties, Napa and Contra Costa. The stresses were horrendous just to do the work, but in addition, there was the managing of the several grants that funded us -- including a large federal grant from NIDA. U.C. Berkeley was our fiscal agent, but that meant additional reporting obligations to meet. Various parts of Project Community were funded by private foundations, and there was always one about to expire and needing continuation justification. a tall order.

But Sundays were a thing apart. This was the time that Bill did his intellectual stretching. I soon recognized the signs that new hypotheses were being born. He would first try them out on me. My role was to listen attentively, raise questions on occasion (but only with real questions), but to have the sensitivity to not interrupt the flow. I got pretty good after awhile. Since I was learning so fast and much of it was in areas about which I knew little, it wasn't hard. These periods could go on for hours. This piece gradually began to fit into another more general piece, one that appeared to be a ritual played out in sunny breakfast rooms across Berkeley. Other wives, other places... .

The larger one was the occasional intimate dinner party (well-dressed women, good conversation, wines-complete-with-New-Yorker-Cartoon-evaluations). There were the clever toasts, and (for me) movie dialogue that would have better suited Peter Ustinov and Katherine Hepburn than me. The only thing missed would have been the men retiring to the library for a good cigar while the women removed the shine from their noses! The first such dinner was almost my last.

We were invited to the Orinda home of a University of Michigan psychologist-futurist friend of Bill's. Don and his wife were here at the university for a sabbatical and a first exposure to the West Coast trend-setting Human Potential Movement. We were seated in candlelight at a lovely old oak table -- one that looked to have been lovingly handed down for generations -- in a carefully chosen arrangement for conversational or political advantage. Learned early that not a lot was spontaneous in these circles but very carefully planned.

There would be toasts and what I soon perceived to be "scripted" conversations. I imagined that each of these wives was aware of her husband's latest hypotheses and that the game was to try to direct the conversation to HIS field of expertise; to cleverly dove-tail his work into that of others -- but always to his advantage - and always with an element of challenge. It was not unlike a good game of bridge. Highly competitive -- and one that I detested from the outset! It seemed that this was womens' only role, and how well we accomplished the desired result was a measure of our social skills. There were rarely female scholars in these groups, though I eventually met many.

It took only a few minutes into the evening to discover the ritual being played out here, and how cleverly Bill's Sunday morning "tutorials" fit into this. Over the course of the evening I began to hear what had been scientific Sunday morning speculations being delivered in declarative statements. Bill was stating them as fact. These thoughts were really highly intellectual and the surely worthy of the raised eyebrows around the table, but I'd been in on their development. As a non-academic and very atypical university wife, it was amusing for the first hour or so, but then it all began to feel silly! Found myself wondering if this was true all around that table, and that the theories in this community were only that; theories delivered as truth? Was I being overly impressed by this world of the scholars? Besides, maybe I just wasn't clever enough to re-direct the conversation very effectively. The other wives had years of experience and were adept at the game. I felt new and clumsy, ineffectual. Poor Bill was forced to fend for himself.

On the drive home from that first dinner I could hardly wait to tell him what I'd learned, and in no uncertain terms declared that I'd never take part in such a charade again! Wrong. I did, repeatedly. And, I learned that this was often the way new scientific thought emerged -- usually in reaction to new hypotheses by others. And that it was a highly competitive game that these men (and they were all men), thoroughly enjoyed as surely as they would have a good game of handball. This was their process. Many new papers were probably produced in just this way. I may have been the only person in the room who didn't know that. I'm sure that my sense of inadequacy played an important role in my reaction. A casualty though, was that I became disillusioned and started to develop a healthy skepticism about much of the new "truths" in my new world, and in the books and papers I'd been reading.

We both compromised without ever allowing the words to surface. Bill became my ally. I'd learn in time that when faced with an indefensible situation, he could and would yield to reason. Our Sunday morning brunch conversations gradually transformed into exciting tutorials for me. My challenges became more daring and my questions more probing, both at home and in public. And, fortunately, those practices in campus life were already beginning to yield to new social pressures introduced by the fast-emerging feminist revolution.