by Thelma Adams ’81
Berkeley Forever by Thelma Adams
In fifty years of second-guessing my choices, I never questioned whether Berkeley was the place I belonged. We fit together like Lego’s. Sure, as my mother drove me up from San Diego that first fall day in 1976, I panicked: “We’re in Emeryville already?” I asked. “Mom, slow down!”
But by the time we pulled onto Durant Avenue and hit the dorms, I was ready. I leapt out of the Mazda, took possession of my half-room on a co-ed floor at Spens-Black, and urged my mother to leave – now! I never looked back.
My Berkeley was possibly a different Berkeley from yours: we typed our papers the old-fashioned way, one peck at a time. We protested apartheid in South Africa. And, back in the Bicentennial year my college life began, we waged the sexual revolution one bed, one bush, and one roof top at a time.
My early feminism was first about intellectual equality. We were the generation where smart middle-class girls went to college not secretarial school. Running a close second, depending on whether it was a Wednesday or a Saturday, was the notion of owning our own bodies. For me, that meant if men could fool around with impunity, so could I.
As it turned out, we were living out our mothers’ dreams — and fueling their anxieties.
Now that I’m a mother of two, the Birkenstock is on the other foot.
Just last week my husband, a Dartmouth grad, regaled our fourteen-year-old son with tales of wild sex and drunken revelry during his Animal House frat-boy days. I stood in line beside them, waiting for our ten-year-old daughter’s performance as the dancing napkin in Beauty & the Beast Jr., and remained silent.
My son gave me that look: we know, Mom, you went to Berkeley. And you were a grind. And you’re Phi Beta Kappa. And you delivered the valedictorian address. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But Dad, he was the real deal. He was cool.
I held my tongue in the wake of my Ivy Leaguer spouse’s bragging. Berkeley taught me a lot of things, but tact has been a hard-won real world skill. There was so much I wasn’t about to tell my son. My freshman year, I made fast work of my virginity before mid-terms with my first real love. Months later, we dropped acid. I faced the greatest challenge of my nascent promiscuity: inserting a diaphragm while hallucinating. But discussing electric spermicidal jelly is so not a mother-son conversation.
Sure, I can safely tell the kid about the solitary wonders of studying from primary sources in the Doe Library stacks as part of my new social history studies, but it was no competition for my husband’s Wildman tales. I could hardly amuse my teen with the arcane pleasures of researching the minutiae of dueling in Early Modern England in original copies of The Gentleman’s Magazine for Professor Thomas W. Laqueur. And what the waning of that ritual revealed about the power shift from the aristocracy to the middle classes. Wow!
Prof. Laqueur was drier, apparently, in the late 70’s, when he’d written about religion and respectability, 1780 to 1850. His seminal books were yet to come: Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990) and the later fabulously titled Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (2003). I kid you not! Maybe I did have an influence on my professors.
And my professors had an influence on me. I wrote poetry for the late great Thom Gunn, circa Harvey Milk. I penned free verse about taking the College Avenue Bus on Chinese New Year and Oakland (“Old Oakland, not as old as Pompeii; thought it has its relics; Old enough to stretch memories until they snap and are drunk back to shape”).
I shared these poems and others about the dizzying beauty of my love for the place where I fit so perfectly with my friends at the Café Mediterranean on Telegraph Avenue. Drinking café au lait and forking diamond-shaped chocolate cake, I expressed my desire to live poetry, to write from inspiration, to be possessed with an idea and pound it out with paper and pen. It was here that I wasted time, waiting for Gunn to anoint me in a way he never would and asking that stupidest of questions: am I a writer?
What a waste of time. I wrote, therefore I was.
Sitting at the Café Med with my best friends – now a children’s book author, a caterer and a history professor – we denounced domestication in our future lives after college. I refused to be Lucy to anyone’s Desi. I never wanted to own a vacuum, wash dishes or dust. I feared being tamed, defined as being reduced from native wildness, made tractable and useful to man. I never asked who, then, would do these things. That was some one else’s problem. I was in no rush to be a wife or mother.
But, now, after wandering in the wilderness for years after Berkeley, and finding my way in New York as a writer, and a wife and a mother, I can look back and smile at that braless chick that was me at university. I no longer care if you call me ‘Ms.,’ or ‘Mrs.;’ ‘girl’ or ‘woman.” It’s small change. Your words don’t define me; I do.
Sitting over-caffeinated at the Café Med, I never could have anticipated that future domesticity itself: the rich detours and the daily battles. I embraced the slant of a life with a man who gave me the piece and peace I was missing: the confidence to write because I was unhappy when not writing. Or who, later, after I launched my writing career, shared with me the smartass son, the dancing daughter who so fill up my days with laughter and yelling.
So, now I live at the end of a long, maple-lined driveway in upstate New York, monogamous, in a funky domestication where my husband cooks, and I do the taxes, he does this, and I do that. We both work and we both raise our brainy children and fall on the couch to watch the BBC mysteries we love equally.
I need the steadiness our domesticity has brought me to write. I’m still fighting that same good fight against bias and injustice that I began at Berkeley, even as I work in the mainstream media. As a film critic, I have become a welcoming gatekeeper for women in film, fighting for the Katherine Bigelow’s, Lisa Cholodenko’s, Melissa Leo’s, in a landscape where men still review 70 percent of the movies we watch.
When I was at Berkeley, I sought out thrills. Now, I try to keep life chill, although drama always seems to find me. And sometimes the genie still escapes the bottle. I throw myself into moshing with a pal at a midnight disco on Main Street in Park City at the Sundance Film Festival. Or, I’ll be at our friends’ house in Woodstock and, after a little gin, do a downward facing dog on the living room carpet just because I still can.
Then, I have my son to bring me down. “Mom: your belly’s showing,” he says, mortified. “Dad, let’s put Mom to bed.” And I let my boys take care of me. By the next day, downward-facing-dog becomes our code word for Mom’s misbehaving. Thank God my son didn’t see me at Berkeley.
Let my teenager think I was a grind. I can only imagine what will happen to him when I drop him off at school some day, and he shrugs away from my hug and turns into the wind of his own wonderful life.