Maxine and Tom

Maxine Hong Kingston is a mythic personage for me. I read The Woman Warrior soon after it first came out in the 1970’s while living in Canada. It was so difficult I decided to teach it in my introduction to literature class at Malaspina College. That was the only way I’d devote the effort needed to understand it. Each chapter was a world of its own, with a different style that required many rereadings to decode the mercurial connections between sentences and incidents.

I was gripped by the horror of No Name Woman, having to piece together in my own imagination the chaotic details of its isolated heroine’s torment. I was thrilled by the pent-up fury of the young girl in revolt against the grip of her Chinese heritage and the hateful prejudices of her native Stockton. I laughed at the cross-cultural comedy of Auntie in Los Angeles.

But what got to me most as I sat reading on the old chesterfield in the log cabin was Maxine’s pre-Disney retelling of the story of Fa Mu Lan, “White Tigers.” Its mixture of psychedelic voyaging, epic battle, erotic romance, frontier child-rearing, pacifist militancy, gender-bending feminism and poetic lyricism distilled the whole range of my aspirations over the preceding ten years. It also reminded me of my wife, another woman warrior who, shortly after we met, had entered personal battle with the President of Stanford University and won, gaining the right for undergraduate girls to live off campus and who had ripped a phone booth out of the wall to stop a mob of angry cops from coming up the stairs during the 1968 sit-ins at Columbia.

I taught the book again twenty years later, relishing the sensation of having mastered its structure and anatomizing it to students. By that time it had become a modern classic, but I still felt a special intimacy with my Maxine, the author whose meanings I’d labored to divine and whose presence I’d constructed in my own mind. A film interview I showed the class gave her a physical incarnation, but that face, open as a pool you could fall into surrounded by a dazzling aura of white hair, rendered her no less marvellous.

Tom Patchell recalls decades-old conversations word for word. My foggy memory retains only fragments. We met in one of my early classes at Cal Poly. Recently discharged from the U.S. Marines, he was an inquiring and talkative student with a congenial anti-authoritarian temperament. As president of the English Honor Society, he dreamed up the idea of a series of lectures by English department faculty members responding to Emerson’s essay, The American Scholar. He persuaded me to give the first one, and over the next few years, seven or eight colleagues followed suit, speaking after-hours to English majors about how and why they took up the occupation of scholar.

A year later, Tom returned the favor by agreeing to help me stage a production of The Winter’s Tale in San Luis Obispo’s Old Mission with my graduate Shakespeare class. He played Jailer, Peasant and Gentleman since there werent enough enrolled students to fill all the parts. Tom lived at the Mission as a kind of acolyte, and he also assisted me late one night to hang a swing from a tall branch of an ancient oak tree that was needed for the scene of Florizel and Perdita’s love duet.

Some time later in the same Mission church, I attended the wedding of Tom and Jenny, a nurse he had met while working graveyard at Sierra Vista hospital. He went on to get an M.A. in English and then moved to L.A. to teach in a Catholic college for women and at East L.A. Community college. We occasionally kept in touch by email, through which I learned he had become the father of two boys.

During the summer of 2005 I began clearing out my Cal Poly office to make space for a part-time lecturer since I was starting early retirement and wouldnt be teaching in Fall. When I asked the department secretary who was to be my roommate, she said Tom Patchell. I removed everything from the walls but a picture of him in the Mission garden playing the peasant.

In January, I returned to the office I now no longer owned. We somehow managed to make office hours overlap and we’d share music, websites, complaints and malicious gossip. I’ve never literally been in the trenches, but Tom drew me into that platoonish feeling of solidarity against enemies everywhere: the Bushies, the university hierarchy, the students, even the wife and kids. Forget about preparing for class.

0.jpgOn Martin Luther King Day 2006 we took a hike up Stenner canyon–with Jenny, his two boys and my grandson Ian. Just like former teacher and student becoming office mates, here again we were bridging a generation gap. In August, as he was starting to work as a colleague at Cuesta College with several of his old classmates from Calpoly, I took Ian to Tom’s house to visit again with the boys. While they frolicked with the dogs, Tom showed me a mockup of the book he’d been working on with Maxine Hong Kingston, Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace.

Last Wednesday night, Valentines Day, along with three other members of their Sangha and writing group, Maxine and Tom spoke in Phillips Recital Hall at Cal Poly. I bumped into him on the way there, as the room was filling up with people. “I remember you once told me, it’s better to have a small room with too many people than a large room with too few,” he said. That must have been fifteen years ago.

I’d planned to take some still pictures of the two of them, but I didnt want to use the flash, and there wasnt enough light without it. So I tried the built-in video recorder and got this crude footage:

Tom’s introduction of Maxine 1

Tom’s introduction of Maxine 2

Maxine’s introduction of Tom

Maxine’s invocation of the Goddess of Listening

Maxine’s description of the Veterans Writing Project

After the reading, I stood in line to wait for Maxine to sign my book. She took her time with everyone. It felt very good to look at her face. It felt even better when she looked back. I said it seemed like going into a new dimension to see her in person after all these years of knowing only my own Maxine. I reached out my hand and she took it. This was a moment I will not forget.

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