Bonaventure was where I learned to be a journalist, taught by the founder of the j-school his own self, the great and amazing Dr. Russell Jandoli, sadly no longer scrivening with us, and I have vast affection for the place.
It came about thusly: Last fall, NY Daily News writer Denis Hamill (brother of Pete) did a piece on me in his paper, all about my Pagan practices for the holyday of Samhain (Halloween to non-religionists).
As fate would have it, Lee Coppola, the current dean of the Bonaventure journalism school, saw the column (a lovely, truly understanding bit of work), flipped out (in a good way) and sent it to Bonaventure’s president, the incredibly cool Sr. Margaret Carney, OSF. Who had apparently already been contacted by an irate alumnus who was absolutely FURIOUS that a Pagan rock chick should have found her Pagan faith at a Franciscan university. (I have since learned that Pagans at SBU are by no means unknown, or unwelcome...I was not alone on campus, is what I’m saying here...)
Anyway, Sr. Margaret thought it was all just too cool for school, and so did Lee, and they invited me up to give an open lecture and talk to several j-school classes. (Sr. Margaret and I met a couple of weeks after the piece ran, here in Manhattan, and had a lovely hour’s conversation over hot chocolate in a midtown Starbucks...)
I was thrilled and honored to be invited (Harpur, my official alma mater, has never even acknowledged my authorial existence, much less asked me back to speak), so I said Oh yes please!, and we set it up for last week.
Well! It wasn’t exactly Tom Wolfe unable to go home again, and it wasn’t exactly Marcel and his damn tea and cookie, but it partook a bit of both. Bottom line, it was absolutely TERRIFIC. I had the BEST time, and the profs and students told me they did too.
The school is lovely, buildings of red-brown brick with tile roofs, all very Italianate, set in a beautiful valley surrounded by rolling mountains, in far southwestern New York State. (Olean, the nearest town, population about 16,000, means “oil place”, and there are tiny prehistoric-looking oil wells all over the place, including in people’s front and back yards.)
There have been a few building additions to the campus since my day, of course, but all in the same architectural idiom. Not a very big school, either: 2,000 students.
Lots of changes in other ways, though: when I was there, girls lived across the road in a huge old Civil War-vintage former girls’ academy converted to a dorm (which I adored). No pants allowed on campus (and it snowed from November to May...). All kinds of other disciplinary restrictions: demerits if you didn’t make your bed or left your room untidy. One TV in the whole dorm. No stereos allowed in the rooms. Of course, no boys allowed beyond the front parlors...
Now the dorms are mixed and nobody has a curfew and everybody has cars and TVs and computers and the dress code has been considerably relaxed and the faculty is no longer dominated by friars. Still a big basketball school, though. And it obviously works.
They put me up in Doyle Hall, which used to be the actual Friary in my day, so that was kind of weird. But the accommodations were a lovely spacious three-room suite: living room (with big TV), dining room (big table and all kitchen facilities) and comfortable bedroom. It was STILL weird, thinking of the friars who had once inhabited the rooms, and here come I, The Lizard Queen—female, Pagan, rock widow—setting up her traveling altar on the bedroom desk.
(In case you were wondering, I always travel with my “road gods”: depending on the vibe of the trip and the energy I might need, and on which deity/spiritual icon hasn’t been anywhere with me for a while, I bring a varying selection with me. None of the statues or small pictures is bigger than about three inches, and some always come along: Dionysus, Ariadne, a diptych of Michael the Archangel and the Blessed Mother. This trip I also brought Joan of Arc, Isis, Diana and two Zuni fetishes: a wolf in strawberry marble with spirit bundle and a black panther in onyx with arrow heartline. I try to use local flowers, stones or leaves on the altar also, and the stones, or sometimes a flower or two, I take home after as a link to the place.)
Lee Coppola, the dean, was a senior when I was a freshman, and so was Pulitzer Prize-winner Prof. John Hanchette, both of whom I worked with on the school paper, the Bona Venture, and it was a delight to see them again. The j-school has its own building now, and may have to expand to a larger facility, when in my day we had one room, just one, and a linotype and a teletype machine comprised the extent of available technology.
Lee picked me up at the Buffalo airport, and we drove down, taking little detours along the way to such places as Ellicottville, a ski-resort town that’s sort of like Woodstock or Aspen in feeling, but much less costly and pretentious, with lovely restored Victorian shops and B&Bs all over the place. Even celebrities show up from time to time, apparently, and I was glad to see that a bit of prosperity has found its way to Cattaraugus County, which, along with other Southern Tier NY/Northern Tier PA counties, has always been historically poor, the northern fringe of Appalachia.
We drove through Allegany, the tiny village immediately adjacent to the Bona campus, itself pleasingly tarted up, with, again, restored Victorians all over the place and some nice shops—in my day, there had been a terrific little coffee shop place called Sylvain’s, for burgers and grilled cheese, best ever, some bars and that was pretty much it.
The first day (Wednesday, April 19), I sat in on an entertaining faculty meeting/lunch, met everybody on the journalism school faculty and rambled around campus, then gave a surprisingly (to me) well-attended lecture Thursday night and hijacked four or five classes over the three days I spent there: newswriting, women and minorities in media, editing, featurewriting, etc.
Got to do all sorts of fun other stuff: work out in the spiffy new gym, check out the art in the impressive new arts center, spend a ton of money in the bookstore (T-shirts and sweatshirts and mugs and stuff), roam around to the sites of former triumphs and travails (including the site of my destroyed dorm, St. Elizabeth’s, now a pretty little garden area; though they happily spared the lovely stone grotto to Our Lady of Lourdes out in back, and I stopped off to say hi).
The classes were fascinating. I talked to them about my own journalistic life, as a Founding Mother of rock criticism and the editor of a national magazine at age 22, and the kids had lots of things to ask, though on occasion they did have to be prodded. Some of them could barely keep their eyes open, for reasons of their own, and I’d be the last one to bust them on it. Others were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, asking questions and coming up after class to discuss all manner of things. I taxed one class with why their generation was so apathetic: the apathetic ones had of course nothing to say, but the other ones were eager to put forth any number of reasons, a few (mostly those who came up to me after class) with greatly reassuring intelligence and humor.
They all seemed bright, though you could immediately pick out the class clown, the troublemaker, the bored cynic who didn’t want to be hearing any of what I had to say. But most of them were polite and genuinely interested, and I tried to give them a look at how what I learned at Bona has been of service to me my entire life.
One thing Bonaventure always prided itself on in my day was its genuine friendliness, “the Franciscan spirit”, and I was so happy to see that that hadn’t changed. People continue to smile at you, talk to you when you’re breakfasting alone in the dining hall, that kind of thing. It’s surprisingly nice, and I was glad of it.
Except...if a strong, young, unencumbered couple comes down a flight of stairs, say, or anywhere else, and sees a not-as-young person visibly and obviously struggling with two overstuffed suitcases and a giant bag of stuff, the proper response is not to say “Hi!” and nothing more and push your way past but to stop and ask “Can I/we help you with those?”
In fact, simple courtesy, let alone the Franciscan spirit, dictates that in such a situation you simply take the bags out of the struggling person’s hands and carry them outside to the cab forthwith. I do it myself, for people of ANY age, when I see a similar difficulty... It’s called good manners. Just thought I’d mention it.
(Looking at YOU, inconsiderate couple on the stairs in Doyle Hall at 9am Saturday morning April 22! Shame on you!)
What would this report be without food porn...
They fed me handsomely, all to my exacting and nostalgic specifications. I wanted to eat at least once in the campus dining hall, the infelicitously named Hickey (girls in my day ate in our dorm, fed by the nuns who oversaw us; we never ate in Hickey unless it was Winter Carnival or Fall Festival or some such event, and they grudgingly allowed us in). I got to have dinner (some very nice pasta bolognese) and breakfast (including FANTASTIC home-fried potatoes, and I am a potato connoisseuse so you KNOW they were good...)
I also requested lunch at the Burton in Allegany, college bar par excellence, who made, and still do, the glorious Burtonburger, best hamburger in the galaxy (the secret is good but not TOO good beef, and the tops of the buns are lightly greased, salted and warmed. Deee-licious.). And lunch at the Beef and Barrel in downtown Olean—where they offer a Western NY regional specialty called beef on weck. (Weck, not wick.) Which is just beautifully rare, thinly sliced roast beef on a kind of roll called a kummelweck, a Kaiser roll topped with lots of pretzel salt and caraway seeds, and served with either lashings of “au jus”, as they call it in those parts (my preference), or sinus-clearing horseradish (not).
Assorted faculty members took me to dinner at two lovely restaurants: Ho-Sta-Geh (local Seneca name, but I forget what it means), on the side of a mountain just south of Olean, with a huge porch and outdoor terrace and spectacular views over the landscape (we saw eagles!) and food to match; and Century Manor, a gorgeous Victorian former funeral parlor in Olean’s historic area converted into an equally g. restaurant (dark wood and tiled floors and huge fireplaces, and reputedly a resident ghost in the cellar), where the food was even better. Filet, stuffed pork chops, and at the Ho-Sta-Geh a springlike dessert of scoops of lime, orange and lemon sorbet.
Great fun talking to the profs, too: Professor Pat Vecchio is a vastly knowledgeable rocker boy himself, and we had a fine time talking 60’s music and comparing iPod playlists. My old friend Hanchette and I enjoyed reconnecting and reminiscing, and Dean Coppola is a truly worthy successor to our mutual mentor Dr. Jandoli. (More of Dr. J in the lecture text, which I’ll post tomorrow.) A former classmate of mine, Kathy Boser now Kathy Premo, also works in the journalism department, and we had a nice mini-reunion after my lecture.
Really nice to talk to the women faculty members as well, two of whom (Breea Willingham and Mary Beth Garvin) took me to dinner at the Century Manor, and we had a rip-roaring time of it. And Carole McNall, who turned out to be a fan of my Keltiad books, a truly impressive person. Even nicer that they’re there at all, since when I was an undergrad there was exactly ONE woman on the faculty, a nun who taught (or imposed upon us) logic and apologetics. Obviously times have changed, and now with Sr. Margaret as Bona’s first female president, hopefully even more change to come.
The lecture went well, though apparently some of the students complained the next day that I’d READ to them. Like, what else? I said up front I’d be READING (well, talk-reading, I don’t straight-read stuff, ’cause that would be boring for both them and me). It wasn’t as if I had George Lucas special effects on tap, or Show-and-Tell items (Jim’s leather pants?) to liven things up...little perishers!
But, as I say, it went well, and the Q&A after both lecture and classes are some of the best I’ve ever experienced. Good, angled questions that got me in the answering groove. Lotsa stuff about Jim, of course, but that was expected.
I’m much better at talking about him these days: when “Strange Days” came out, I went from never having talked about him FOR TWENTY YEARS to not shutting UP talking about him for two years straight—two solid years of nonstop interviews and TV shows and radio shows and feature articles and book tours.
Quite an adjustment, and after a while I started to actually break down and weep in front of reporters. So, that being unacceptable on SO many levels, I went to a therapist for about a year to address the fact that I had NEVER really addressed the facts, and it’s been a lot better ever since.
A student who had asked me in class was it hard to talk publicly about Jim (yes, it is. REALLY hard) later told her professor that she was surprised I was as composed about it as I was, but that my demeanor had impressed her and had made Jim seem real to her. That was very nice to hear. It was gratifying that she had the kindness to inquire, but also satisfying that she maybe learned a small lesson about journalistic intrusions into people’s private lives, and if she becomes a professional journalist in future, perhaps she’ll take that lesson with her.
I talk about Jim in public because the myth that is out there is insupportable and incorrect and a freakin’ tissue of lies. Not even a tissue. More like a giant heavy slab. And it cannot be allowed to stand. It cannot be permitted to be the record of Jim in the world. And if I have to surgically insert the truth about Jim (and me, and me with him) into the thick, resistant, bone-headed consciousness of everyone on the face of the earth, fine. It doesn’t benefit anyone for me to lose composure–not me, not Jim, not the audience; by this time I’m familiar with the questions and indeed with the feeling of being kicked in the slats, and I am far better able to cope with being blindsided, having learned the hard way.
Besides, if anyone’s going to be mythmaking about Jim, that person is going to be me. Stand aside, amateurs and liars and agenda-pushers and people who weren’t even around for it and alleged biographers who never trouble to ask ME how things were! And they STILL aren’t asking...couple of books recently written /now being written whose authors haven’t bothered to talk to me at all...again with the dissing and the ignoring, and I’m really, really sick of it.
So, would-be mythologizers, step away from it all and let a pro handle it! Let someone who was there for it in a true and real way tell you about it. The truth is as mythical as anything you could ever want. You couldn’t make it up better or lovelier or more tragic or more magical than it was, and still is. Talking about Jim, getting the truth of him out there, the truth of us, is the last thing I can do for him, and the best thing I can do for us.
I took the bus home from Olean, as I wanted to see how the countryside had changed (not that much) and how pretty it looked in spring (about 2 weeks behind NYC, so still with blossoming pear and cherry trees and tiny bright green leaves). It was cloudy and showery, and I got to see the mist hanging low in the valleys again. Lovely. Took 8 hours door to door, but I didn't care. I was the only passenger on the bus all the way to Corning, and the driver and I chatted a bit. We ran into a pottery fair in the streets of the impossibly pretty college town of Alfred, but he wouldn't let me buy anything out the bus windows...
So that was what I did last week, and I’m deeply grateful for being allowed to do it. I like to think that Bonaventure remembered me as well as I remembered it. You really CAN go home again, just so long as you keep it in mind that home’s changed as much as you’ve changed. Thomas Wolfe, suck it up!