A few evening hours at a restaurant, then an opera: that’s how we knew each other a decade ago after being introduced by a mutual friend. Despite the limited time in one another’s presence, these days we both draw energy from something akin to willingness bolstered by an implicit accord. Every year she prefaces one handwritten communication to me with a declaration along familiar lines. “As you know—for I’ve told you—yours is the card I most look forward to receiving.” Her departure for a job in Oregon abridged our relationship to once-a-year, long-distance holiday greetings, but what greetings! She calls me her Prince, Dearest, and I address her as Turtledove or Lambkin. The frivolous salutations come with an edge, referencing a post-performance conversation one evening over martinis about how thrilled her parents would have been had their only middle-aged daughter ever married. For fun then, over the miles we cast one another in imaginary roles we could never fulfill, and exchange personal news and views—witty or sad, sometimes down and dirty—about careers, despairs, and aspirations. Just an hour or so each year for nine years running now, putting antediluvian pen to paper, and in my head I feel closer to my December pen pal than to some members of an extended family.
I keep thinking my relatives are much like anybody else’s kin, but then something like this happens. As a working adult living within a few miles of several in-law moochers, my nephew has decided welfare recipients are cheaters robbing honest folks of the taxes they are forced to pay. He uses social media to project his opinions about antisocial justice and the NRA on the collective conscience. Once, he loaded one of his many guns and sat in a dark room. Then while pointing the muzzle at the camera lens, he made his eyes bulgy while somebody snapped his picture. It was one of those weeks when folks were asking themselves for the nth time what might be done about another slaughter of children in yet another blood-splattered American school. At the peak of national grief, up went his image on social media to alert friends and others that my nephew is a man with a plan. Step 1. Aim a loaded gun. Step 2. Wait for somebody to embark on a crime. Step 3. Snap a picture and pull the trigger. Problem solved, at least for a criminal stumbling into my nephew’s line of fire. For consolation I remind myself again how dark energy and dark matter constitute 95% of the universe.
For seven decades, employees at a national R&D laboratory in California have been required by the government to apply for and obtain security clearances. During my tape-recorded interview for a clearance, a young interviewer asked me a question while reading from a script: “We are given to understand you are gay. How often do you have sex with underage boys?” I asked the examiner first to explain how sexual preference might be relevant to work as a science writer, and told the interviewer I would answer the question if every employee—straight or gay—were required to respond to an equivalent question about having sex with children, in the interest of national security. The interviewer switched off the recorder and invited me to step outside for a breath of fresh air. I was offered an apology for the pre-scripted questions tailored for me. When the recording session resumed, the question about underage boys was not repeated. I was granted a security clearance and informed the matter of sexual preference would not be raised again. Perhaps decision-makers concluded I was an unlikely candidate for blackmail, but that is speculation.
One department head, several tenured faculty members, and a student representative conducted the initial interview for my second teaching job at a university. Following an invited presentation on campus, a phone call several weeks later instructed me to, “Get that hot little bottom of yours on a plane and out here.” Helen, the department head on the telephone, had a reputation for speaking her mind, and she did not suffer fools. She was also a beer-drinking, chain-smoking lesbian with a robust sense of humor—a “big frog in a little puddle,” as she once described herself to me. We formed an immediate bond. Knowing about her reputation for generating gravitational waves in our corner of the ivory tower, I observed two distinct responses to her activities on campus. Students respected her as an enthusiastic teacher and pioneering woman who had been one of the first females to earn a doctoral degree in her area of specialization and then ascend to a position of authority in the academic world. Indeed, she was the only female to sit on the Chairmen and Department Heads committee. Many male colleagues, on the other hand, despised her, and I believe more than a few felt deeply threatened by a woman in a position of power. Some males vented their animosity through behaviors so petty as to suggest hatred bordering on insanity. Many of Helen’s allies became my own, and her antagonists mine as well. Some of the brightest individuals I’ve known in life have been the most childish when reacting to women who outshine them.
An undergraduate student appeared at my front door one Saturday morning, saying she had some questions about the assignment I’d given in class that week. She hugged a bundle of notes to her body while standing outside the entry, dressed in clothing appropriate for midwinter weather. Could she come in? I showed her into the living room and told her to relax for a few minutes while excusing myself to finish shaving in the bathroom. When I returned to the living room, the student had indulged in the offer of hospitality by lounging on the couch, stripped down to brazier and panties. As a large individual, particularly sizeable in frontal aspect, her enormous breasts seemed to spill out of her brazier and overflow onto the sofa. I explained I did not have sex with students. Years later, I related the incident to a friend who asked me, “Is that sexual harassment?”
The principal characters have joined the choir invisible, so opportunities for prosecution or recrimination are long gone. In my role as department chairperson, an older student once came to my office to explain a problem behind closed doors. Her voice shook as she described a colleague who had demanded sex in exchange for a good grade. “I am a married woman,” she repeated to me, going on to say she had yet to take one remaining course to complete her major, and the required course was taught by the propositioning professor. She refused to enroll in the class even if it meant sacrificing her major after years of study. I immediately authorized a substitute class, though such a move technically exceeded my authority, and scheduled a meeting with the University President. After informing my superior of the misconduct complaint—and the fact that other female students had independently related essentially the same tale—the President held both hands in the air, palms forward, as a signal for me to cease and desist. There were only two legal grounds for terminating a tenured professor, he said: incompetence and moral turpitude. “Unless you have proof guaranteed to hold up in court, I can do nothing. The University might be financially ruined by damages accruing from a successful counter lawsuit of this nature.” So what would the institution require as legal proof in the present instance? Well, for example, the President answered, photographic evidence of faculty–student coitus in the classroom would do. Such was the response to complaints of sexual harassment or assault on campus by tenured faculty members against female students at the time. My warm opinion of the academic tenure system cooled that day and has remained chilly ever since. It was the 70s. More specifically, it was what might be called the era of female liberation cum sexual harassment in the 70s when, sometimes, wrong won and right lost despite earnest intentions.
During the peak of the Vietnam War years, I drew number 63 in the mandatory draft lottery held for all male U.S. citizens of combat age. Within a few months, I received a letter to appear at the County Draft Board and was ushered into the office of an elderly woman who told me to take a seat. The woman came directly to the point.
“Our rural county is sparsely populated, so we don’t get many monthly calls, but I expect your lottery number will be called soon.”
She shrugged. “Not many in our county graduate college, and fewer go on to graduate school, as you are doing.”
“As I see it, you have three options.”
“Three?” I waited.
“You can go to Canada. You can go to jail. You can teach. Teaching qualifies you for deferral.”
The woman behind the desk stared at me and did not mention the fourth, obvious option. That afternoon, I secured my first teaching job and was never drafted into the military. I lost 20 pounds from nervous frustration during the next year of trying to teach high school biology and physics classes, but that’s not a complaint. What I do regret is never thanking the woman whose suggestions might well have saved my life from a battlefield fate that befell so many friends and acquaintances during that era.
My twenty-something-year-old friend loved two things above all else in life: laughter and a good cream-filled donut. Not any donut, but the cream-filled ones sold before 9 a.m. at a certain donut shop in town. While still a college student, this woman would sometimes get out of bed in the middle of the night to whip up a bowl of butter and sugar frosting in the kitchen, then scarf it down. That was before encountering the donut of her dreams and becoming a teacher. One morning on her way to teach at an elementary school a few miles from home, she drove out of her way to purchase a dozen cream-filled donuts at her favorite place. She ate a donut in the car, then another. They were so delicious, she had a third donut while walking to the school building and then finished the box of cream-filled donuts before the first morning bell rang. Waves of nausea sent her to the bathroom where she transferred all the donuts from her private to the institution’s public plumbing. After telling the school principal she was feeling a bit under the weather and needed to return home for the day, my friend drove to her favorite donut shop and bought a dozen cream-filled donuts, devouring the first on her walk from the car to her house and several more in the kitchen. She laughs about it to this day and fancies she has learned greater self-control.
In the Lithuanian countryside of her nineteenth-century youth, my grandmother lived among peasant households that welcomed as blessings opportunities for child labor to supplement starvation incomes. Accordingly, my Babo moved into and worked at a priest’s residence from the age of seven. She learned to read and write in her home-away-from-home, but in later life she told anecdotes about resident priests dining extravagantly and guzzling wine from silver goblets while her family sometimes went hungry. In the small hours, Babo would occasionally steal into the estate larder and sip wine to get tipsy with another house maiden, but more often, she’d load eggs and bread into an apron, then scurry across frozen midnight fields, alone, to deliver food staples to her family. In adulthood, she hadn’t a good word for the clergy, but on her deathbed, Grandmother prayed to the one and only merciful God. I find myself unable to believe in the things Babo accepted on faith, and value instead critical thinking, but I suspect we can increase in some personal way from almost everyone who crosses our path. That is to say, we can increase ourselves rather than feel reduced whether people—clever or foolish, intentionally or otherwise—reinforce or diminish us while doing what it is they do.
Robert D. Kirvel, a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, is a Pushcart Prize nominee (twice) for fiction, winner of the Chautauqua 2017 Editor’s Prize, the 2016 Fulton Prize, and a 2015 ArtPrize for nonfiction. He has been published in England, Germany, New Zealand, Ireland, and in several dozen U.S. literary journals. A novel, Shooting the Wire, is soon to be published in London (Eyewear Books). Follow him at twitter.com/Rkirvel.