Not quite a Weeknote - Life Demarkation Summer and Brother Mel
Friday was my 2nd week since my 2nd vaccination for Covid–19 so things are a bit freer for me, should I take that path. I am deeply relieved to have had the vaccine and to start thinking about life on the other side of this pandemic, but also realizing there will be a 6 month or 9 month booster shot needed to keep the protection fresh and adapt it for new strains, much like the flu shot.
The French Open and a Time When it was My Comfort
This being the end of May it means The French Open has started and one of my markers for my seasons and cycles comes to mind. Back in 1988 I returned from Europe from studying (I took my last semester of undergrad in Oxford at the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies and staying with my friend in Lyon (with about a week camping trip to Corsica)) to come back to the US to go through graduation at St. Mary’s College. I was going through some rather rough reverse culture shock and shifting to post college live. But, watching The French Open, the Today Show (it was traveling around Europe), Wimbledon, and The Tour de France (I grew up watching it and loved cycling) kept some tentative connection to Europe that kept me sane. I had some Roland-Garros and French Open t-shirts and beach towels that were gifts from an aunt who strung rackets for some at the Open.
I hadn’t had much of connection to The French Open prior to that summer, but it is something that has stuck. It brings comfort, but also brings some understandings of the world a bit closer. That summer I also found James Baldwin’s books and Notes of a Native Son and some other writings of his, which really struck home. I understood Baldwin’s comfort with France and challenging mindset of the US. Baldwin’s thinking in writing about not feeling a part and finding something with a life and mental models in another place somewhat comforting as it wasn’t just me. I grew up with Sesame Street and everybody gets along and treats each other the same way as a common mindset and thought that was the way things were, but living outside the US had me see that wasn’t the case and things I didn’t see or wasn’t able to see as I didn’t have another perspective I could see clearly.
Seeing the clay courts of Rolland-Garros bring that right back. But, also refind the focus of life long learning that the Oxbridge systems prepares one for. As well as some of the heavy reading I did that first summer back in the US.
Thinking of this and having some time unfocused from work and time to think of the passing of Brother Mel Anderson who was President of Saint Mary’s College of California. This one hurt a bit, as a lot of who I am and became as an adult I owe to Brother Mel. When I was at St. Mary’s he lived in the dorms across from one of my good friends and while waiting for my friend to get back to his room so we could study or head off to do whatever I would chat with Brother Mel. We got into some good deep discussions early and spent a lot of time talking with him. He would ask if I knew about something and when I wouldn’t I would get books and rip through them to have follow on discussions. He was an intellectual mentor constantly pushing, but also opening doors to understanding how the world worked, and deepening appreciation for the arts, food, and better understanding the world around.
My first summer at St. Mary’s he asked if I wanted to work on special projects for him, which was ripping apart one of the freshman dorm’s hallway walls and reinforcing them to make them stronger and a lot more quiet. I was also running room service at the Oakland Airport Hilton, which was a blast. I was living with a friend in Berkeley in his fraternity’s old apartment building (it had an amazing roof top view of The Bay). But, as I was mostly around campus during the summer and not many other students (but basketball camp was going on, which meant I got to meet and know the Barry brothers who taught me how to shoot a basketball properly). I got to know the campus and the Christian Brother’s community quite well and would usually have a meal with Brother Mel once during the week. At the end of that summer Brother Mel asked if I was going to do anything fun before school started and I thought I may had to New York City, but my mom shot that down. My response was, “well, if not New York now then Europe next summer”. I had no idea that Brother Mel would take two to three students every other summer on trips around Europe, so he offered.
The following summer it was supposed to be Brother Mel and another student heading to Europe for just under four weeks. The other student had to back out a couple weeks before the trip due to a tumor found on his thighbone. Another he offered to go wasn’t able to do it on short notice, but was a friend of mine from the year before and rowing crew. One stop was Oxford to have an interview with the Centre I had applied to study at for my last semester (that was approved the week before we left). We stayed in London at a Christian Brothers house, Paris, Lyon, Florence, Luzern, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Heidelberg, and Amsterdam. Between each city we would take the train and I would read, but Brother Mel would talk to me about where we were going and provide history and talk about what to expect. We would head to museums, trek about the city, have one decent meal, and hit historic spots. It was amazing. It was akin to the old school Grand Tour, and it really opened my eyes to seeing the rest of the world. It was a great preparation for years later heading to conferences around the globe to speak and small really interesting gatherings around the globe with smart folks digging into various early ideas in a domain.
That following summer I was back from Oxford and Lyon, which I was well prepared for and kept in good touch with Brother Mel until I moved to the DC areas. It wasn’t as easy to pop over to St. Mary’s, but I stopped in a few times on trips back to say hello and catch-up. He is deeply missed and I’m deeply grateful for his life and his amazing impact on mine. He opened my mind and the world, but also helped me believe in myself, which I hand’t learned to do up until I met him.