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JOSEPH N. BELL

When Psyches Go 'Tilt,' the Familiar Can Put Us Back on Track

April 27, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

I ran into Homer Brown on the UC Irvine campus the other day. He was putting an unwieldy pile of books into the trunk of his car and looking a little helpless about it. "I just learned how to operate the (computer) in the library," he told me, almost apologetically. "I was doing a search and these books sounded good to me. So I took them all."

That brief encounter set me to thinking about the fact that all of us have certain bits and pieces of stability in our lives--things we can depend on, solid reference points that bring us back to level when our psyches are saying "tilt." Homer Brown was one of mine.

Brown is a professor of English at UCI and a leading scholar in his field of the 18th-Century novel. His office was just three doors from mine, and during the 2 decades I spent at UCI, I must have passed it 10,000 times.

Whenever Brown was there, his office door was open, displaying a breathtaking panoply of books. The bookshelves that line his office had long since been filled to overflowing, and there were books piled high on the floor, the desk, the windowsill and every available chair. I envisioned that somewhere in the past, Homer Brown had surrendered to books, and ever since, they had dictated his life at will.

Each time I walked by his door, I looked inside to try to find Homer in this rabbit-warren of books. And each time, the search gave me a small feeling of security. He had capitulated to books with grace and style, and I know I would have been disoriented if one day I had walked past his office and found the books under control and the furniture visible.

So I asked him the other day if he had tidied up his office, and he shrugged eloquently and held up his hands in a gesture of capitulation--and I knew everything was OK. And then I began to think about some of the other reference points that help me chart my life.

One of them was taken away a few months ago, and I still feel the loss. We had in our neighborhood a retired Navy enlisted man and blue-collar worker named Tom Erro. He was an uneducated, mostly inarticulate, and wonderfully gentle and generous man with stirrings in his soul that he didn't know how to express. And so for many years, he decorated a large, stark, nondescript tree in his front yard. He hung old tires and bicycle wheels and cereal boxes and discarded bits of metal and wood and whatever else suited his fancy on his tree. It was highly visible, dominating an intersection that I passed many times each day.

Tom Erro's tree became another of my reference points, and it warmed me to inspect it daily to see if anything new had been added. Erro died late last year, and the first thing that his heirs did when they came to clean out his house was to strip the tree. It was almost as if his soul were sent after him, and that is as it should be. But I still feel a void when I turn that corner and see the empty tree.

Just as I'd feel a void if the waitress who has served me so cheerfully for so many years where I eat breakfast most mornings moved on. Or if the Big A sign at Anaheim Stadium were to disappear. Or if anything happened to obstruct the view of the Pacific from the crest of MacArthur Boulevard. Or if the piano player at my favorite bar were replaced.

I hope nothing ever happens to change the contours of the tree-lined alcove on the UCI campus where my youngest daughter was married. Or our next-door neighbors never follow through on their talk of moving that always unsettles me. Or they never tear down the Ferris wheel on the Balboa Peninsula.

But if any of these things happen, I'm better prepared to deal with them because Tom Erro's departing soul underscored a lesson I've learned painfully slowly: that our reference points are transient. If we stake our well-being on those reference points always being in place, we run a grave risk of falling apart when--as will inevitably happen in human affairs--they disappear or change. Getting angry helps briefly, but isn't very rational--or even very satisfying over the long pull.

This is especially true when our reference points are people. People change. People are fallible, and they move about, both physically and internally. That can be devastating at worst and uncomfortable at best if they have been allowed to become the foundation of our own stability. But if, instead, they are helping hands to push our internal security system gently back into balance, they are to be embraced.

If Tom Erro had decided in his lifetime to express himself in some way other than his tree and stripped it himself, I would have been disappointed and briefly disoriented. And if Homer Brown were to switch from books to yoga, I'd feel a sense of loss. But it would be more wistful than angry. That tree and those books have served me well.

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