Oct/Nov 2011 Nonfiction

Reality Strikes Again!

by Julia Braun Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

Photograph by Jascha Kessler

After my miraculous year reveling in the visual glories of Renaissance Florence, and through them savoring the splendors of that unique flowering of genius, the very notion of taking a leap back into California's crude realities seemed unthinkable.

Still, it had to be done, the urgency was there. Word had come our way that my husband's posting at the University demanded it. Indeed, his job was in jeopardy! So despite a tempting, Italian-sponsored invitation to extend our stay for yet another year, we went home on the double.

Having so early after his prestigious appointment at UCLA deserted his commitment to teach Freshman English composition, instead choosing to take up his own research and wander the world on a Fulbright grant, my husband had raised the question of his seriousness as a contender for the University of California's tenure track among several of his senior colleagues. No back-water community college, after all, was UCLA. This was a vast, state-funded institution with priorities, not to mention scores of Freshman to be served. But more pertinent even, was how scarce such positions were. At every moment, there were upcoming Ph. D's competing for such a post on its faculty.

Our year abroad had been a beautiful dream, but the dictates of the real world were crystal clear: practicality and responsibility alone must command our behavior now. Foremost came the support of two growing children, their welfare to be attended to. And we needed to promptly look into the state of our newly-purchased house back in Santa Monica to reclaim what remained of our worldly possessions. Those things, such as they were, had been left for the year to the mercy of renters. Nagging at us, too, was the immediate necessity of retrieval of our un-invited pet poodle, whom we had abandoned to the care of my ever-dog-immune sister in Berkeley.

Yet, what most inspired such urgent actions, and became the prime mover to protect what little we had acquired until then, was the discovery that I was already pregnant with our third child! Given our numerous experiences with physicians in the course of that year's stay in Firenze with children's illnesses—their exposures to measles, influenza and even chicken pox—we were disinclined to continue on Italian soil, thus chancing our newborn to the incompetent state of Italy's medical system. Some things just couldn't be argued, and the superiority of the American medical establishment, at least at that time, was among them. We were heading home!

After delivering for overseas transport our little Volkswagen bug, which had loyally toured us round all that year in Italia, we took an ocean voyage ourselves. The month was September, and the Atlantic was already teeming with storms. Nor did our provisions in tourist class ("steerage," as we liked to term it) provide much comfort from them. Though we were aboard the luxury liner the S.S. United States, all four of us were packed like sprats into a minute cabin well below the water's level.

Within a day out to sea, there came the first of those ferocious winds so characteristic of the Atlantic in that season. And with it arrived the buffeting of the huge ship, accompanied by the faltering little voice of our six-year old son. His refrain, in a querying, singsong chant, remains one we have repeated even to this day: "Mommie, Mommie, why the United Stakes is tipping?"

Over and over would he ask that question as the voyage progressed. Soon, along came the violence of sea-sickness for at least three of us. A puzzling experience, I might add, even to us, those supposedly knowledgeable parents, who, some years before their birth, had sailed that peaceful Atlantic route during its benign, June calm spell.

These many years later, I can re-envisage that sharp storm in every single subsequent encounter with the Sea. What that squall also brings forth is the memory of the kindness of our ship's steward, a gentleman much put upon all that while, but who quickly provided us with his remedy of peeled, green apple slices, coupling this with the urgent advice that we get up to the open top deck as quick as we could climb.

So did we upchuck our way along for several more days, when finally, there before us, was the sight of our blessed shore, together with its gracious lady, the Statue of Liberty, her arm aloft as always to greet us. Better still, we were to find after flying home to it that California no longer seemed that "alien planet" to us. It was thoroughly welcoming with its bright sunshine and blue sea. Thus, our re-entry soon began to seem simple enough—my husband's university job was still there, together with our Santa Monica house to await us. It became a mere matter of "willing" ourselves to plunge into "life" itself.

Our first setback arrived immediately, however, as we tried reclaiming our poodle, Harry. During the year away, we had gloated to hear in various correspondences how he'd endeared himself to his life up in Northern California and to his adopted family. We had snickered particularly over the compliments my sister spouted in championing his charms. Now we were to learn that her family was loathe to part with him.

Once we comprehend how deadly serious my sister was about keeping Harry, it ceased to amuse. We were distraught at the very thought of losing our thoroughbred Royal, our black beauty. He was, after all, that same precious fellow who'd pioneered with us across the nation, panting all his way to the shores of the Pacific. Oh, how our own children wept and wailed over the news!

It took some angry exchanges, even the threat of kidnap from my desperate husband, the dog's closest buddy, before my sister finally relented and we managed to solve the dilemma for us all. What she promptly did was to seek out, among the local breeders, a fine little specimen of a poodle puppy just for her family. This little creature was, of course, irresistible to my niece and nephews (who had promptly dubbed it Georgie, though subsequently he proved to be female). And it brought the fiasco to a happy conclusion.

As for our kiddies, they were soon enough among their friends, delighting in the ease of using their native tongue. We set them right back into the nearby Santa Monica public school system, and for a while, that was that. Only later did the realization of the advantages of bi-lingual language skills and the likelihood of their loss occur to us. After that year in Italia, they were wholly fluent in Italian, even to catching its regional tones, the local idioms of Tuscany itself. "Che pecato," as they might have phrased it. Hardly could we watch such lingual facility evaporate into the California night. The very thought didn't sit well.

So, I immediately scouted about us for a solution. There was, indeed, very little available to be found then in that relatively remote tongue. Still, I discovered that right nearby us on the Westside of Los Angeles was a functioning European style private school, albeit one where French alone was its emphasis. Opened recently, The Lycee Francaise de Los Angeles was indeed an educational institution serving to foster bilingualism. Ideal for our purpose, hardly. Even so, we decided to plunk our eight and six-year-olds into it to preserve those precious Romance language skills they'd carried back home with them.

Ah, but how to pay the tuition on such a private education? Already straining on my husband's meager assistant professor's salary, this certainly presented an added problem, one which was to persist throughout the years. It meant that we desperately needed to supplement our income to pay our bills. And, alas, how might we then suspect that with kids at the Lycee, there was yet more expense involved? Not only was there the tuition, but all those "extras," like school uniforms, for example, to go along with frequent and costly school outings. Worse still, the student body at this institution was almost exclusively composed of children from prominent Los Angeles families: the affluent, and notably among them, numbers from the entertainment industry.

Thus, despite my new pregnancy, the matter of my employability for that year had become crucial. Curiously enough, my husband, newly back on Campus, soon learned of great stirrings just then on another branch of it. A Ford Foundation-sponsored experiment had recently been embarked upon, and there was now a search on for a temporary lecturer for it. It was an interesting coincidence for me.

Though this program had been undertaken in the School of Engineering, it proved one for which I found myself uniquely qualified. For what it hoped to achieve was to make the elective courses in the liberal arts required by the University for young technicians more appealing to them. And given my University of Chicago-style-Hundred Great Books undergraduate education, together with my graduate school credentials as Master of Arts from Columbia University, I could qualify for and undertake this handily.

The circumstances which had led up to the Foundation's grant had been peculiar enough. For far too long, freshman technical students had been notoriously ignoring such liberal arts requirements, despite the mere smattering of these essentials to gaining their degrees. Such pre-requisites—the ones which did not pertain to their particular career aims, their coming areas of specialization— were customarily referred to by the students as "those crap courses we have to sit through for a Bachelor's degree!"

For years now, these kids had apparently been choosing the most elementary ones they could manage to find, or alternately, those which happened to be scheduled nearest their end of the campus, thus assuring that they need not even exert themselves to get to class. In short, they were determined to avoid any study that "wasted their precious time."

The prospect of engaging these recalcitrant students was not promising, and a few faculty members had already become disaffected and abandoned the attempt. Still, I was willing enough and ready to experiment, and then lucky to snag the post promptly. I would be expected to pursue the course's already chosen content—many great works from the past in many fields—organize for the various department professors still willing to present lectures on their specialties in these various disciplines in order to get the enterprise back on its feet again, and, at the same time, coordinate everything with the School of Engineering.

It was indeed to prove a trial. Trying to teach uninterested students—potential engineers—the wonders of the poetry of Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, the brilliance of such as Swift, Thomas Paine, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud, along with a smattering of contemporary writers like Hemingway and Faulkner, was daunting indeed. And, moreover, doing so in front of classes generally averaging as many as 150 slouching students, three times weekly. It virtually spelled defeat. More like trying to grab the attention of five-year-olds and hold on to it for 50 endless minutes.

There were, of course, those few distinguished guest lecturers from our own campus still willing to make the effort, despite the campus raillery, to deliver their revelations concerning breakthroughs in history, or those presenting ways of comprehending literary innovations, and to actually aspire to make their assertions meaningful to such resistant boys (indeed, almost exclusively boys were in such technical classes in those times). Even so, word had got around the Campus, and thus, in the crunch, there remained myself merely and my colleague from the Engineering Department, Professor Gershon Weltman, to carry this load. We lectured, ran our group discussions, trying desperately to persist, to hold that enterprise together and to make a difference for these students.

To be sure, during my time there, I myself heard some superb recitations from those lecturers. One historian's presentation on the history of the "stir-up" became a remarkably inspiring hour, when such students actually dropped their Daily Bruin and turned to listen. They were engaged, excited by what they heard, because Professor of History Lynn White, in demonstrating the development of this little device, showed how it had actually changed the history of civilization. He explained that, in freeing a horseman's arm motions, the device, had in effect dictated who prospered and who faltered. In short, it determined who lost in battle, who won in wars, who lived or died.

Such wonderful hours as his inspired innovations of our own. I, for example, soon came up with a rather ingenious way to interest them in Dante. At least, I had them listening for a change. In teaching the Inferno, I devised a mechanistic design for the poet's Circles of Hell, a kind of inverted cone, getting narrower, darker, more intense as it moved deeper down below. I could thus illustrate how each descending level served for the particular retribution the poet had foreseen for many transgressions of the human species. What appealed most to this group was contemplating the machine-like aspects of this structure, along with its relentless activity, even as it was shown on a flat, unmoving screen in front of them.

Indeed, that year we could even boast of some successes. We had stirred the imaginations of such students, turning them towards new directions, enlarging their horizons, even perhaps—and very occasionally—interesting them in taking up further exploration of that miraculous other world of the "incidental," the "peripheral," the "tangential" surrounding them.

All the while, I might add, I was securely, or so I thought, keeping my pregnancy secret from them. I would arrive early, lecture from behind the lectern, and when any meetings with students were scheduled, hide behind my huge office desk. Thus, I managed to complete that first year. And even now, I chuckle to remember how upon my return to administer their final examination, some weeks later and after the birth of my baby boy, I found myself greeted with a round of applause. Inattentive they may have been to our curriculum, yet, they missed very little! Since during that period most women still retired from the scene during child-bearing, my own persistence was noticeable, even something of a dare.

During those post-WWII years, the crusades of such as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, and others displayed how women all over America were overtaken with a new restlessness at their constrained positions in society. They were speaking up, demonstrating, rebelling. Little question that the ever-dependent "housewife," the little helpmate—sweeping, sewing, doing the laundry—was no longer the model for ideal marriage. In every way, women were revealing what they sought. And they wanted the freedom now to seek it out.

Marriage had had its role built-in over the decades, but no more would it dictate such rules. The feminists shouted this out loud and clear; they demanded access to the world along with their men. This was not to say that the institution itself was necessarily passe, though during this chaotic time, in far too many cases such unrest wrecked such unions. Men, as yet, had never been challenged. And certainly, as the exclusive bread winners of the family, they expected to run the show. Then too, it need be added, that just as their wives found themselves much put upon by children's constant wants, the men, too, saw themselves as neglected and without attention. The result, alas, was their often turning for consolation to available women in the work place.

What had become abundantly clear, however, was that the old system no longer served. And, wonderfully, these women led the charge to make their own rules, to seek their own fortunes.

As for me, I never wavered in my particular pursuits. Though in sympathy with their movement, I still followed my own path. This never did include activism, for it was not my style. I was to continue with our experimental program teaching future engineers that Fall semester, and persist for the few years until our grant money ran out. I can recall in that period my rush back home to Santa Monica after each class to nurse that newborn during the next year's stretch. Yet another notable result of that experience—or, at least one I have long enjoyed thinking so—is that his exposures in utero had brought my baby son—when he himself grew up—to seek out an Engineering degree as well!

My own life, of course, needed to revert, at least for a bit, towards domestic concerns, that process which necessarily follows the birth of any infant. But, then, this was Southern California, not after all the unrelenting East, so the moderate climate made for less intense routines. I delighted in how easily one could set a child to napping daily under a fig tree right in our garden for most of the year. It was a revelation after my Eastern adventures with my earlier infants.

So, he too prospered, gave up nursing, slept nights, and even found "the potty" after a bit. The meanwhile, I'll confess to it, I longed for a crack at the outside world again, or at least a means to allow each day's business to provide more than mere toddler's carpooling and grade school children's chatter.

Yet, I'll also confess, my own impetus toward "liberation" came of another source entirely. It had been born far earlier in my life, raged through my childhood, and thrived in me still. Started when I had observed that disappointment in my old-world father's eyes, as he beheld his third-and-final daughter's youth and emergence. I watched his weary fretting while looking upon his offspring, for he could see no strong young male moving steadily towards maturity, to carry his name and join him in his own aspirations for capturing that American dream. And it was then that I vowed to prove him wrong, to show my stamina, to preserve his name, by making my own mark in life.

How odd all this sounds now, and how nonsensical! Yet it meant a great deal then. Life has its special cares for us all, does it not, and so different for each time and at every stage.


Previous Piece Next Piece