Winter quarter 1992

More stories from my life. This one ends up with a Wonderful Jacques story (which doesn’t make my dad look good, until the end).

Act 1. Winter Quarter 1992 started out on a very high note indeed — my presidency of the Linguistic Society of America, celebrated at the annual meeting at the Biltmore Hotel (now the Millennium Biltmore) in downtown L.A. The hotel provided its top suite; from the website:

Presidential Suite: (4,600 sq. feet); stay in the same room as 9 U.S. Presidents and the Beatles! Occupying 2 floors, this 3-bedroom, 5-bathroom apartment has an antique elevator, spiral staircase, grand piano, formal dining room, full kitchen, library/office, living room with flat-panel plasma television and DVD player, extensive closet space and Pershing Square views

A very big wow. Jacques and I took the really really big bedroom; Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky and Brent Chapman took another; and Geoff Pullum and Barbara Scholz took the third.

Of course we had a gigantic party (after my presidential address), billed as an Out in Linguistics event, friends welcome. Over a hundred people came, and we had a great time.

During the party, we gave tours of the place. People kept asking to see Jacques’s and my bedroom. At first we found this odd — though it was huge and well appointed, it was just a bedroom — until we realized that they wanted to see the bed in which Jack Kennedy shtupped Marilyn Monroe. We tried in vain to explain that well, yes, this was the bedroom, but, no, it wasn’t the actual bed; hotels replace their beds regularly, especially in the top-line suites. But still they came.

Act 2. That quarter I taught a graduate seminar at Stanford on the internal syntax of the NP in English. Lively class, with three regular faculty auditors: Tom Wasow and Elizabeth Traugott from Linguistics, Chao Fen Sun, a Chinese linguist in East Asian. (As it happens, I had dinner with Elizabeth and Chao Fen last night.)

I still have good notes from that course (on paper, the old-fashioned way), but didn’t do much with the material, because I was overtaken by other events.

Act 3. Soon I was involved in sitting with Dwight Bolinger as he lay dying in Stanford Hospital. There was a group of friends and colleagues who passed the duty back and forth between us, in shifts.

Every so often Dwight would come out of the morphine haze — I was familiar with the morphine routine from my wife’s death a few years before — and chat with me animatedly, mostly about linguistics. He’d been president of the LSA 20 years before and especially wanted to hear about the meetings.

He died late in February, and Jacques and I did our best to help his daughter and son cope with arrangements. Along the way the four of us had a bizarrely calm and pleasant dinner together at Mandarin Gourmet, which I recall had a special spring menu, featuring asparagus dishes. (Memory is odd.)

There was a touching memorial service, out of doors. I kept expecting to see Dwight ride up on the bicycle he used to get around Palo Alto.

Act 3. At the same time, my father was suddenly in medical trouble, the years of his leukemia blossoming into one disaster after another. I began driving to Arroyo Grande every weekend, with Jacques or Elizabeth or both, to support him and my stepmother.

He fell apart dramatically — a heart attack, a small stroke, various broken things from his striking maniacally free of the restraints on him. Eventually he was more or less stabilized, came back to something like ordinary consciousness, and was moved from the local hospital to a rehab center nearby.

And then, of course, being someone who’d never been seriously sick or incapacitated before in his life, he descended into a foul mood towards everyone, but especially his wife, who he blamed for all of his inexplicable troubles. He was unbelievably nasty towards Ruth.

I conferred with my little family, saying I had to do something to protect Ruth, who was almost crazily unhappy at the way her husband was treating her. And Jacques said,

No, he won’t listen to you, or Elizabeth. He might listen to me, because I’ve been in his position, facing death, and I can talk to him man to man.

(Notice that Jacques got dad’s fear of death down just right.) And so my wonderful man did his routine, uncompromisingly. He took over, saying (I paraphrase):

Zip [my dad’s college nickname. which Jacques could use but I never did], I’ve been where you are, sure I was going to die, and I have to tell you that it’s crappy, but you have to be decent to the people who love you, who are just as frightened as you are. Especially, you have to be nice to Ruth, who loves you and is afraid she’s going to lose you.

Maybe there was a bit more. Jacques was fierce but loving, the straight-talking son/friend. Maybe his best moment ever. (I wrote his parents about this moment, under the heading of “Why I love your son”).

My father stared in anger at Jacques. And then melted. Apologized. Of course, J. said dad should apologize to Ruth, not him. And he did, and the two of them moved into a sweet zone.

Aftermath. Not long after, I was scheduled to go back to Ohio State, on my usual 2,650-mile semiannual trek. Ruth said to go on, so Jacques and I did the drive back (I don’t remember any of the details of this particular trip), in time for a seminar I was teaching and the intro to sociolinguistics.

Just after we got back, Ruth called to say dad had died. And I postponed the seminar, got Don Winford to take over the beginning of the intro sociolinguistics, flew back to California, where I ended up taking a small plane from San Jose to San Luis Obispo that passed (on a bright coastal day) right over my house in Palo Alto, who could believe it. Descended into the Central Coast, coped with all the arrangements, had a memorial dinner along the coast with my stepsister and one of my my stepbrothers (and their spouses), and watched the sun come down over the ocean that my dad loved so much and where his ashes had been scattered.

I don’t remember a lot of the rest of that academic year, though I seem to have gotten several things ready for publication and gone on to the International Morphology Conference in Austria. (My father, mother, and stepmother were all, always, baffled by the texture of academic life, with my working nights, weekends, vacations, and using up these “vacation times” for conferences and the like. They were all gratified that this bizarre life brought me and Ann and Elizabeth and Jacques to them on trips, but they had to get used to me — and Ann and Jacques — grading papers during “breaks”.)


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