Saturday, November 24, 2007


A big wind went through just a little while ago. The sky is purple. No leaves are left on trees. My preoccupation all day has been human life. There are several reasons for this:

1. My niece and I had a long talk on the phone during which we discussed the wisdom of getting a pet at our age. (She is Bob’s genetic niece, was my student long ago, and is not much younger.) Our consensus was that it would be wise to get a pre-owned older pet. And we talked about parenting patterns: her grandmother versus her mother and whether it is right to call two sons (both she and her grandmother had two sons) her “boys” when they’re all grown up. She intends to keep right on doing it!

2. The BBC Victorian costume dramas I last saw were both preoccupied with the span of a human life and their success or failure in it.

3. A new-found cousin, Sylvia Vaughn, (our great-grandmothers were sisters) has sent me a copy of a beautifully written journal of her grandmother’s adventures homesteading in Oklahoma in 1890s. I was not prepared to discover that she dies at the end, after they had moved to Seattle. Her husband, a minister, writes a final note. I had no idea we had any religious relatives on that side, the side of my father the self-described atheist! Sylvia and her husband went through a nearly unsurvivable ordeal which she describes at

4. The sequence of movies on which I have embarked almost obsessively is the Michael Apted 7Up series in which he follows an assortment of children born in 1964 through their ups and downs. They were supposed to be the best and brightest of various classes but eventually sorted out across the spectrum of happiness and success. Some of the most promising failed -- one of the most charming and imaginative became homeless. But Suzie, the little rich girl who seemed most trapped and cold, found a true love and was lifted into a real life. She is transformed.

The kids have been followed into their forties now and I’m anxious to get there to see how they turned out. In real life right now they would be a little older than the first classes I taught in 1961, but I saw the same changes -- so gradual and then after a while such great transformations as to seem almost unbelievable. These days they run the tribe and BIA.

Human maturation is not like watching a pup grown into a dog. The times change around them, so that their hair styles, their weight, their clothing, their accents change as they go along -- and they do have an impact with their own free will. Some of them become more themselves as time goes on. Still the clown, the “monkey,” the bundle of energy, the irrepressible Tony who wanted so badly to be a jockey and seemed so suited for it -- or John, still the traditionalist with hair falling over his face, impeccably dressed and intent on becoming a politician. My favorite, if that’s possible, was the boy who grew up in the country with cows, wanting to know “all about the planets” and who indeed turned out to be a major achiever early on. Yet he discourages any attempt to make much of him. The near-angelic boy who wanted to be a missionary turns into a rather thick young man with a fancy for cartography. (That’s maps, not autos.) One of the charity school boys went to Australia and became completely redeemed.

I have “21Up” so far and have peeked at the preview for “49up” that’s on Netflix. There are four more for me to see. I think I will accompany these comments with photos of me at those ages. When those people were kids, many of them thought it was ridiculous to do such a survey and others thought they were being mocked for being stereotypes of their class. It will be interesting to see what they think at 49.

Here I am at 7. It was 1946 and my “glamour uncle” was just out of the Army Air Corps and a pilot for TWA. He had married Jo Sutherland, a stewardess in the days before they had to be thin, and they had one daughter so far, Carol Lee. Carol was the first my “cousin set” to die -- she had ovarian cancer in middle age. These two men, Bruce (R) and Seth (L), were respectively the oldest and youngest of four children, the ones I called “the bachelors” because they were late to marry. When they did marry, they kept their traveling jobs and depended on strong wives to keep things running at home. This created a much different pattern than for the middle two children, who had a double wedding and remained devoted lovers in their two pairs and close companions among the four.

In those days I had leg aches all the time, which were said to be “growing pains.” My mother was advised to keep my legs warm and make me wear supportive shoes, so I wore leggings and nasty flesh-colored long stockings with suspenders over my shoulders, since I didn’t have a waist yet. I was a disaster at home -- way off in the clouds or storming or near-manic with glee. At school I was considered a model and a pet.

I think these were the years that Joyce Thomas and I were best-of-friends/worst-of-enemies. She was far more of a “lady” than I was and we walked back and forth to Vernon Grade School, battling or embracing. Then she went to St. Andrews, the Catholic school, and something happened to her father -- I don’t know what. We took piano lessons together once from a red-headed and tempestuous man whom I remember as “Von Burnowitz.” Once her very sophisticated uncle, a bachelor who lived alone in a hushed and carpeted apartment, took us to the ballet. Or maybe it was a movie. I’ve wondered since whether he were gay, which I would not have considered a debit. Nor do I now. Joyce and I did go to high school at the same time, but on different paths. It’s a different story. I don’t know what she’d say from her side. I don’t find a 7 year old photo of her.

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