It was toasty here this weekend –in the 100’s –even though summer has been over for a couple weeks. While the nights cooled off nicely and the heat was dry and not the unrelenting, penetrating kind that we have at times here during the summer – a white heat as opposed to a yellow one, as I like to think of it – but I have always particularly resented these fall heat waves, since I feel they prolong the hot summer and cheat me out of my favorite season.
Nevertheless, fall is here in Claremont, with the weather cooling off, albeit slowly, and the colleges going at full throttle. Following are my two most recent Claremont Courier columns, reflecting on this transition and various and surprising memories and issues that it stirs up
THOSE COLLEGE DAYS, THESE COLLEGE DAYS
“Old man” was printed in black block letters on the back of the lifeguard tower, like it was done with a stencil. This was the wrong tower – it was not the last one, the next one down, Dog Patch, where the beach wheelchair was – but I knew about Old Man. My friend used to talk about it. He told me that the waves there are always easy to ride, a good place for an old man to go to surf.
Even before seeing the Old Man tower, I was thinking of my friend. Perhaps it was the strong stink that greeted my friends and me on Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago when we drove down to the sand at San Onofre State Beach. It was an overpowering smell, one of salt and fish, lots and lots of seaweed. It was almost nasty. It was the smell of a true, wild beach, a smell I get only a hint of when I go to my usual beach north of Santa Monica. This was no city beach.
My old friend would appreciate this. He did appreciate it. I don’t know if he liked the stink – he would probably say it was “stanky” – but I knew that he spent a good amount of time of time at San Onofre. It was one of the places where he liked to go surfing.
Surfing was a big part of his life. It may have been what it was about. He got a very good, stable job, but he made sure that it was located in San Diego and that he was able to get off by 4 every day so that he could go hit the waves.
I knew that my friend was a good surfer, that he understood the waves. I knew that he was at home on the shore, that he was easy with the waves crashing with the mix of sand and rocks unseen under his feet. I knew this when he would carry me, full-grown, into the cold, salty water and lift me high each time a wave came in.
The waves would keep coming, cold and biting, and I would scream and yell along with my friend. And I would love it. Not only was it a blast, a terrific, fun, wild thrill. It was wonderful feeling so safe in my friend’s hands, and I was happy to get a glimpse, an inkling, of what it’s like to surf and why he loved it so. When I got tired, after not too long, my friend would take me back to my wheelchair and sit with me as I shivered, wrapped in towels, until I got warm, at last, in the bright sun. (At one point, he got a small wetsuit for me.)
As I sat there on the beach at San Onofre a few weeks ago, classes were getting underway or were about to start at the colleges here in Claremont. Perhaps this was another reason I was remembering my friend taking me into the ocean – something I hadn’t experienced since I was a small child and one of my parents could easily carry me and something I haven’t experienced since. It was when I was a student at U.C Riverside in the early eighties, on my own, away from my home in Claremont for the first time, that I met my surfing friend.
Who knew I would meet a guy who loved surfing and would share it with me in such a gutsy, hands-on way, and who knew I would let him? Who knew I would end up being friends with this guy with his right-wing politics and punk rock music?
He probably taught me more, or opened my eyes more, than some of the classes I was taking. I certainly saw another world with him. I also learned that I could be friends with someone I didn’t always agree with.
I thought of this as I sat watching the waves crashing in, white and frothy, that recent Sunday afternoon, getting higher and higher on the shore, and I thought of how this happens again and again in Claremont. With the college students coming into Claremont and settling in for the year, it is no doubt happening, It is pretty much inevitable.
It is one of the greatest things about Claremont, as we should recall this month as the colleges get into their full swing, more than the acclaimed professors and all the remarkable lectures and performances. Year after year, young people come here and meet others who are from different places and who like and believe different things. Year after year, these students here from all over who are not like each other discover that they are not that different and can end up being friends.
An article last week in the Los Angeles Times mentioned , for example, that incoming freshmen at Pomona College were invited to read and discuss “Americanah” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during their orientation. The novel is about Nigerians who emigrate to the U.S and Britian and return home and, according to Dean of Students Miriam Feldblum, offers multiple perspectives on racial issues and American and Nigerian societies and emphasizes that assumptions about culture and history shouldn’t be made. The dean also suggested that it’s a good book for young people because it examines long friendships and life’s unexpected turns.
Life’s unexpected turns. I thought about them too as I sat on the beach that Sunday afternoon at San Onofre as the tide inevitably rose. I don’t know where my friend is, and I don’t know why we lost touch with each other about 15 years ago. Perhaps he didn’t like my coming out as a gay man. Perhaps he was trying to find a new life after his beautiful wife committed suicide, leaving him with two little boys, and I was too much a part of his old life. Perhaps our different politics got to be too much, or we both didn’t try hard enough.
Returning to Claremont the next day, I was sad that summer was almost over, even as I knew it wasn’t really – this is sunny So-Cal, after all, and I was already planning another beach outing or three in the next few weeks or who knows how long - and even as I couldn’t wait for the weather to cool down. I was also glad to be going home to a community where people have once again come to discover and develop their own lives, or their new-found lives, full of rich, sometimes surprising and not easy, rewarding adventures.
AT IT AGAIN AT THE ATH
The finger-snapping was new to me.
I have seen a lot of twinkling, when people raise their hands and wriggle their fingers in approval. I have seen people repeat in unison what a speaker says to make sure it is heard by all. But I had not seen an audience, or part of an audience, snapping during a speech.
A friend told me it isn’t new. He said that it was common at readings and gatherings during the period of the Beat poets. He also mentioned that it was in the same spirit as the “human microphone” – the audience repeating what the speaker says – which was often seen during the Occupy movement.
But there was something new about the snapping, something advent-garde. This was something different, something that was a change. I won’t say it was ominous or scary, but it was edgy.
Indeed, something was on edge that evening a few weeks ago at the Athenaeum at Claremont McKenna College. Janet Mock was the featured after-dinner speaker. Ms. Mock- emphasis on the Ms, thanks – is a transgender woman, a woman who was born in a male body, a concept many people have a hard time getting their heads around – not unlike, say, same-sex marriage five or ten years ago. The author of a memoir, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love and So Much More, she has spent years speaking out, in an effort to help people to understand it.
Perhaps her claim to fame most recently is responding to an interviewer on television who asked why she changed from male to female by saying, no, she didn’t change, she was always female and was stuck in a male body. It isn’t easy to stand up like this, speaking truth to power, so to say, and being African-American and Hawaiian doesn’t, I suspect, make it any less of a challenge.
So she came to the Athenaeum in the early days of the new semester with a strong, definite message. That she was in conversation with Carol Williams, an associate professor of chemistry at C.M.C who is also a transgender woman, was also a strong, definite message. It was clearly a message that many people at the colleges wanted to hear and many others at the colleges needed to or should hear.
One question during the Q & A – tellingly, in an unusual if not unprecedented practice at the Athenaeum, anonymous questions written on cards were accepted if one was more comfortable doing so – had to do with whether a women’s college should accept women who were born in a male body. I had the sense that the audience members who were snapping at times were those, like Ms. Mock as she indicated in her response, who are tired of questions like this being or having to be asked.
It is understandable that they are fed up and impatient, even angry. I have heard plenty of these questions, including, on some painful and wrenching occasions, in the gay community. There are also groups, such as the Rad Fems.who are adamant that a woman isn’t a woman unless she was born a woman. This, of course, is on top of the general bias in society, with many people, as I said, having trouble getting their heads around the idea of someone being trapped with the wrong gender. There was almost a measure- one that would be highly divisive and hurtful - on the upcoming state ballot to repeal the new law allowing people to use the public restroom that they feel is appropriate.
This was indeed a brave way to start the year at the Athenaeum, with a strong message. Just having the participation of a transgender woman professor teaching chemistry at a college that used to be a men’s school – Claremont Men’s College – was remarkable enough.
But it wasn’t that surprising for the Athenaeum. Yes, it has hosted the likes of Newt Gringich and Mitt Romney and lots of C.E.Os, but it has also featured the drag star RuPaul and AIDS activists, not to mention Bill Clinton, as well as such head-turning artists as Bono, Spike Lee and Ken Kesey. It has taken C.M.C a long way from its reputation of being a school for conservative jocks and business majors and has lately been referred to a daily salon of sorts, providing an “hour of art and culture on campus.”
The presence of Ms. Mock and Ms. Williams – emphasis, again, on the “Ms,“ – wasn’t the only sign that evening that the Athenaeum is continuing this practice. A striking, huge painting, a new addition, all but dominated the large room. It was full of tumultuous, inky, dark colors and had two long tubes of bright neon light, in sharp contrast, slashing across it.
The painting made for a bold addition to the room. As I found out the next evening there, when Mary Weatherford was in conversation with Robert Faggen, professor of literature and director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at C.M.C, it is very much a bold addition not only to the room but also the college and also makes a bold specific statement.
Mary Weatherford is the artist. I had seen her speak at the Athenaeum in the Spring about her work, praised for its strength and recent use of neon light, but I had forgotten that she was going to teach at the college this Fall and that the college had commissioned a work from her. This mammoth work is the result of that commission.
As became perfectly apparent during that evening, the painting came about with the college and Claremont in mind. The tumbling and swirling blues and browns show the sweep from the rocky slopes of Mt. Baldy to the crashing waves of the Pacific. This wide-ranging landscape is rough and wild, almost violent, full of obstructive rocks and brambles, but, as evident with the bright lights, it has been tamed, if not civilized, with industry, commerce, culture and, yes, education. Or perhaps they just coexist.
This artwork is exciting and monumental, reflecting the Athenaeum, along with the mission and also the challenges and changes going on at C.M.C and the other colleges here. It was no surprise the next week when Anis Mojgani, the poetry slam champion, was at the Athenaeum, saying he would “blow your mind” and doing exactly that.