The Mysterious Connection Between Sex and Bowling

bowl sexMy Irish Catholic parents were not people who talked about sex. Ever. My four siblings, as far as I know, had to learn about sex the old-fashioned way–on the streets. My brother told me once that, after he had already been “to the street,” my father took him out for a walk. This alone signaled Important Doings, because my father was not big on walking. The city mailbox was less than one block from our home, and my father used to drive there. Once my dad and Johnnie embarked on this unusual father-son walk, Johnnie could see that my dad was trying to move the conversation in a certain direction. It never happened. Apparently my dad “ran up” on the subject a few times, and then aborted the mission. This unsuccessful attempt at a father-son talk was not exceptional for the times. At least in Irish Catholic families, sex simply wasn’t discussed. Ever. (Even such reticence was a step ahead of the previous generation. When my mother was a child, a boy in her class at Our Lady of Peace School told her what turned out to be the correct facts about how babies are made. Appalled, my mother ran home from school and told her mother what she had learned. Without missing a beat, Mommy Mayme replied, “That’s a dirty lie.” I have no idea when my mother realized that indeed it was not a lie but a Beautiful Truth.

By the time I started in the direction of puberty in the late 1960’s, parents were encouraged—even admonished—to tell their children about sex; learning about it on the streets was no longer acceptable. The sixth grade teachers at Christ King School must have, at some point, informed our parents that we would be talking about sex in Religion class and to be prepared for questions. I think this must be so because one day out of the blue my mother asked me to bring my Religion Textbook home with me. She wanted to look at it. This was an unprecedented and surprising request. Until that moment, I had no real sense that my parents even knew exactly what classes I was taking, much less what books we were reading. Nonetheless, I dutifully complied.

My mother took the textbook from me and took a quick glance at the Table of Contents, then turned to a specific page and read something there. Then she closed the book and handed it back to me, saying “Well, that’s fine.” Deeply intrigued and ever on the alert for Odd Parental Behavior, I noted as best I could where in the book she had looked, and as soon as I had the book back in my possession, I went there.

I found the pertinent paragraphs. It was a section of our book we had not read yet, and it was called God, Sex and You. It was mystifying. Our author started out by telling us that sex is Very Beautiful. Then he said that sex is like a fire. If I put logs into my fireplace and light them on fire, they give the room a lovely glow and lend warmth to all who are gathered. That is, the author pointed out, a Good Fire. A Bad Fire is when, instead of putting logs in the fireplace and lighting a match, I set fire to my whole house.  Such a fire rages out of control quickly and destroys everything in its path. That, the author pointed out, is a Bad Fire. He concluded by saying that sex should always be like the Good Fire and not like the Bad Fire.

I had no idea what they were talking about, and why anyone thought he needed to tell me not to set my own house on fire. I may not have been an “A” student at the time, but I knew not to do that. I didn’t pursue the matter further, though; by that time, I was resigned to the basic strangeness of all adults whenever the word “sex” was spoken.

By the time we actually arrived at this part of the textbook in Religion class, I had a sex5better—though by no means clear—idea of what they were getting at, because my mother had done her maternal duty and taken me to a movie at Christ King School about the Facts of Life.

I do not know the name or provenance of the movie they showed; all sixth grade parents were encouraged to attend along with their child. There were actually two movies, because the boys and their parents were sent to the “big gym” and the girls and their parents were directed to the “small gym.” My father did not go with us, so it was just my mother and me taking our seats while one of the sixth grade teachers welcomed us. I don’t know if the boys and the girls were shown the same film, but I doubt it. Our film involved a lot of information that I realize, in retrospect, would never have been deemed suitable for the boys.

I have only very dim memories of the film, but three things stayed with me: first, it opened with scenes from the Garden of Eden; we saw Adam and Eve looking happy and healthy, and then God pointing out a few trees that were Strictly Off Limits, and then the snake showed up and things spiraled downward from there. It was a familiar story. The one scene from this part of the film that I remember vividly was the moment when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden. There they stood, with their hair and/or hands strategically covering their private parts, looking extremely sad. Behind them a very angry angel glared in their direction and slid a golden spear through the handles of the Gates of Paradise, shutting them out for good.

Having heard this story many times, both at Christ King School and at mass, I admit that my mind started to wander at this point. We had had to leave the house immediately after dinner to make it to the film on time, and so dessert had not been served. I knew there was some butter pecan ice cream in the freezer and some Hershey’s Syrup in the fridge. I was musing on this pleasant prospect when I realized that the film had exited Genesis and was now showing scenes of Typical Young People Doing Fun Young People Things. I was not a typical young person, though I often longed to be, and my ideas of fun almost never meshed with what other young people did, so whenever I was offered a peek into scenes from a typical life, I soaked them up with the passion of an anthropologist.

bowling2The Typical Fun Girls in this movie were, at first, having milkshakes together at an ice cream store (very nearly derailing my focus back to that butter pecan ice cream awaiting me at home), and then they all went bowling together. Over the pictures of these smiling, happy young women, the narrator intoned the information that “something was going to happen to me.” Soon. Now they had my attention. What was going to happen to me?

I am pretty sure I paid close attention at that point but I surely must have missed some crucial bit of information, because now the narrator was telling us that as a result of this thing that was going to happen, there would be times during the month when I would feel lethargic and even cranky. At those times, I would not want to go bowling with the gang. However, the narrator encouraged me, I should go bowling nonetheless; it was very important that I bowl, no matter how I felt.

This seemed to me to be a very badly made movie. I had no idea why we moved from Adam and Eve to this bowling scenario. We were still years away from Rotten Tomatoes back in 1969, but this film would have scored abysmally on my Tomatometer. After the exhortation about bowling, there were some diagrams of what looked like part of the engine of my father’s car—tubes and knobs and a central joining-up place—that the narrator said was my Female Reproductive System. He went on to say that God was amazing, because He had thought so far into my future that I already had all my eggs. “Just think of it!” said the Narrator. “Right now, this very day, you have all of your eggs already in your body!”

I cannot adequately describe how confused I was by this. All my eggs already inside me? I thought. But I eat eggs. Eggs that are clearly outside me and then I eat them and only then are they inside me. They are never “already there.” Should I not be eating extra eggs, since I already have the eggs I need right there inside me? Before I could ponder this weird Narrator Side Trip, however, the lights came up. The movie was over.

On the way home from Christ King School that night, my mother asked me if I understood the film. “Yes,” I replied honestly. I thought I did understand it; I just didn’t think it was very good. I hadn’t been asked for an evaluation, so I didn’t tell her that I had found the movie confusing and not at all well-made. Genesis? Bowling? Eggs? Then my mother asked if I had any questions. I could tell that she hoped that I didn’t, so I did not ask any, but I certainly had some. For starters, I had only been bowling once in my life, and I hated it. I was also terrible at it. Why was it now important that I embrace bowling with my friends? And why was bowling important only at certain times of the month, when I was cranky and out of sorts? Why did we go to school at night just to brush up on the well-known facts of Genesis? And what was the mysterious thing that was going to happen to me? And what was the deal with the eggs?

A few months after the Really Bad Movie about Adam and Eve, Bowling, and Eggs, I read an article in the Milwaukee Journal about a sexual assault. I didn’t know what the phrase “sexual assault” meant, so I asked my mother. She said it was an assault having to do with sex. Well, that was not at all helpful, so I asked her what “sex” was. My brother Johnnie was in the room during this conversation, and he began to chuckle. That was my clue that something was up; I had a clear vibe that information was being withheld.

My mother said that “sex” meant the female sex was a girl and the male sex was a boy. Johnnie’s chuckling intensified, and he said to my mother, “Good one.” Now I was really hot on the scent. They were both holding out on me. At that moment, my mother decided it was time to start making dinner, so she left for the kitchen to assemble grilled cheese sandwiches. I followed her.

I was a child flawed in many ways, but I had some strengths. One of them was doggednss. There was unstated information between Johnnie and my mom, and I was determined to get to the bottom of it. I stood sentinel at the cutting board while my mother methodically placed slices of Kraft American Cheese on individual slices of bread and topped them with tomato, green pepper and onions. I pushed and pushed for the information I wasn’t getting, and finally my mother erupted with, “Ok! Sex is what happens when the penis is inserted into the vagina!” As my mother continued slapping sandwiches together, I felt as if actual dawn were breaking over my consciousness; it was one of the few moments in my life when I felt literally enlightened. “That’s why husbands and wives sleep in the same bed!” I crowed. My mother agreed that yes, that was so, but even then I could see that she thought it an odd response.  She must also have been confused as to why this was such news to me; after all, she had done her due diligence: she taken me to the film at school and she had even asked if I had had any questions.

At some point I made the connection between my mother’s startling fact about intercourse and that time of the month when I would feel cranky and out of sorts. Unlike a lot of girls my age, I was eager for that part of puberty to begin. Everyone told me that it would mark the beginning of My Life as a Woman, and I was ready. Childhood had not held many charms for me, and I was ready to move on.

I kept careful watch for what my mother told me was called “My Period.” No one told me that when that rite of passage was on the near horizon, my body would change in some other startling ways. Thus it was an unhappy surprise when I went to bed one night and realized that my chest has taken on a disturbing life of its own. I didn’t have breasts, but out of nowhere my nipples were starting to swell up. That can’t be good, I thought to myself, and figured I just might be getting cancer. The thought of asking my mother any more questions in this area was not appealing, so I took matters into my own hands, and tried to pop them with a safety pin.

That did not go well. In fact, it hurt. A lot. Still not in the mood to approach my mother, I told my sister Susan I might be dying, and showed her my chest. Susan studied my chest sagely, then said, “You don’t have cancer. And stop stabbing yourself in the chest. It’s weird. It’s all just part of the whole thing that happens when you get your period. And you can’t stop it.”

I asked her if she had already “become a woman.”  “Oh yeah,” she said. “For a few years now.” This was fascinating information for me, as I shared a room with Susan and thought I knew all of her secrets. “Did you know all the facts of life when it happened?” I asked her. “Oh no,” she said casually. “It just came one night when Mom and Dad were out. I thought I was dying of cancer. But I wasn’t. Mom explained when she got home. Then she washed my pajamas.”

Not too long after that conversation, my period arrived. I was so happy. I was a woman. I told my mother and showed her the tiny stain in my underpants. She was prepared, and brought me into her bedroom, opened her chest of drawers, and pulled out a box. In the box were padded things, which she then pinned to a belt she also took out of the box. This was a “sanitary napkin.” I had never seen anything like it. She showed me how to put the belt on, how to pin the pad to the belt, how to pull my underpants up and over this bulky new situation in my swimsuit area. While I was thrilled to be a woman, I found all of these mechanics distasteful and embarrassing. My mother showed me how to wrap a used pad in lots of toilet paper and dispose of it in the wastebasket.

I was not a fan of the mechanics of Becoming a Woman, and by this time, I was eager for the conversation to end. I had no idea how I was expected to live my normal life and still deal with this belt and pin and pad and toilet paper chores. I found out that, in fact, there were now going to be days when I would not be able to go swimming or take a bath. The filmmakers who had been so obsessed with my bowling commitments might have at least mentioned this, I thought.  I actually liked swimming and I loved baths. So far I was hearing nothing pleasant about this great moment when I Became a Woman.

And then I heard some magical words. “When you are at this time of the month,” my mother told me, “You aren’t expected to participate in gym class.” Now there was some good news. I despised gym class for many good reasons. “How do I get out of it? I asked her. “Tell the gym teacher at the start of class that you are having your time of the month,” she told me. I can do that, I thought. I can definitely do that. This news almost offset the creepy parts with the belt and the pins and the no swimming rule.

At my very first opportunity, I told Mr. Landisch, our gym teacher, that I could not participate in gym class because it was my time of the month. Instantly uncomfortable, he nodded and mumbled something and hurried off, clipboard in hand. It was as if I had been given a magical incantation. While my classmates climbed ropes and raced each other on tiny little scooters and picked teams for indoor soccer, I happily sat on the sidelines with my book. As time went on, of course, I could not resist using my Get Out of Gym Free card even when it wasn’t officially required. After a few months of that, though, even Mr. Landisch was not fooled. I used my card one morning, but on that particular day, he bellowed at me across the entire gym, “Maloney, you’ve had your period three weeks in a row!” That was the end of that; I knew I could only use my ironclad excuse once a month. It was still better than nothing.

And as for bowling—I didn’t bowl again for at least twenty years. I was still terrible at it. But I felt just fine.

bowl1

 

 

Advertisements

The Job I Love and How It Found Me

gread-eWhen I entered Marquette University’s Graduate Program in Philosophy, I had no idea what I was going to “do” with an advanced degree in Philosophy, but I was sure that I wasn’t going to teach. Accepting Marquette’s scholarship and fellowship was a way to postpone a future in which I would certainly be expected to shape up, grow up, and find something useful (and profitable) to do with my life. My hazy plan was to get my Master’s Degree and then go to law school. When I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, I made sure that I could “opt out” after two years with Master’s Degree in hand.

Before my first term at Marquette, my mentor at Mount Mary College warned me that graduate school would bear little resemblance to my undergraduate classes, where we had read wonderful books and asked fascinating questions.  Graduate school, Dr. Conlon told me, would be about learning a specific set of skills. I would be taught how to think, write and speak like an academic. What we studied would matter less than what I learned about how to do research, how to write for publication, how to defend my ideas in public at conferences.

I didn’t care. Maybe graduate school wouldn’t resemble my undergraduate experience, but from where I stood, it was as close as I was going to get. At least I would still be reading philosophy and talking about it with others. I was sure it would be superior to any alternative I had. As the summer ended and my first semester at Marquette drew closer, I grew more excited to begin my classes and my research work. I had graduated Summa cum laude from Mount Mary College in May, and I felt certain that I was ready.

I was not ready. The first class I walked into was a Philosophy of Freedom seminar—an entire course about free will. On that first day, Dr. Anderson informed us that each student would be writing a major paper on a topic of our choice related to free will. In addition, we would be writing a critique of a fellow student’s major paper. Each major paper would be presented in class, followed by the critique. We would not have access to the critique until the day we presented; part of Dr. Anderson’s evaluation of us would rest on how well we responded to criticism “on our feet.” Our grade would depend on how well we defended ourselves; the grade of the student writing the critique would depend on how thoroughly he or she filleted us. Those two scores—our paper and our critique—would be the sum total of our semester grade.

hume
David Hume

I wrote my paper on David Hume’s philosophy of freedom. I logged hundreds of hours writing that paper; the final version was forty-four pages long, and I felt confident.  Not only did I have a strong paper; for the occasion, I had gone to Marshall Field’s and purchased a new Pendleton skirt and matching cashmere sweater with my initial embroidered on the breast. I was set.

The critique of my paper had been assigned to a fellow student named John; he was a Sartrean. He also looked like Tom Cruise, and I was pretty sure that he liked me. He had asked me over to his apartment after class so he could make me dinner; clearly, I was sailing high with this whole “graduate student” experience.  After I presented my paper, John-the-Cute-Sartrean began his critique, and I simultaneously experienced my first—and only—case of hysterical deafness. John’s mouth was moving, things were clearly being said, but I heard nothing. And then his mouth stopped moving, and the members of the class, including Dr. Anderson, turned in unison to look at me. “Um,” I stuttered, “Could you repeat that?”

Silence. Then Dr. Anderson nodded at John and said, “Repeat your main objections.” John did so, and I could hear his words this time, but they were not strung together in any way that made sense. He may as well have been reading a shopping list. From the planet Bajor.

Silence. I knew I couldn’t ask John to repeat his critique yet again, so I stammered out some sort of response, relying on my undergraduate knowledge of Sartre to carry me through. It must have been alright, because the conversation moved on from there, but I was badly shaken. I begged off of dinner at John’s; the thought of spending the evening with the fellow who had carved me up for lunch was distinctly unappealing. I went home instead, and spend the evening whimpering, listening to Paul Simon songs, and eating chocolate peanut cluster ice cream. I had taken a major hit. And I was, more than anything, confused.  In my classes at Mount Mary College, I had always been confident, calm and self-possessed. I still had warm memories of the night before I graduated–first in my class. All the seniors had stood on the steps outside Notre Dame Hall carrying Japanese lanterns and singing “Climb Every Mountain.” What had happened?

I wasn’t sure. But I had gone to an all-women’s high school and an all-women’s college, whereas the free will seminar consisted of nine men—and me. My last experience of being with men in the classroom had been Christ King School, and those “men” had been twelve years old. These graduate student men were considerably older, and seemed like a different species. They talked—a lot. It seemed to be their way of figuring things out—talking, jousting, thrusting, parrying. They were thick skinned and aggressive, and not one of them was inclined to say, “I totally see where you’re coming from,” or “I hear you,” or “Wow! Your hair is so shiny today!” I was used to my fellow students using language to establish continuities and connections, to understand my point of view, but these beings were using language to make distinctions and establish dominance, to defeat my point of view. It was a new world, and no had given me the Instruction Manual.

My Plato seminar was more of the same, but without any instances of hysterical deafness. There were three other women in that class, and one of them—Mary–befriended me. She had been around for a while, and was dating one of the dominant primates in the group, so she was a kind ally, my Virgil as I navigated the first graduate school circle of hell. But the class itself was incredibly difficult. Each student had to turn in, by semester’s end, an eight page single spaced summary and analysis of ten separate dialogues, excluding the Republic, in addition to a short paper on the dialogue of our choice and a longer (20-30 pp.) paper on a topic of our choosing.  I had made it through college never having pulled even one “all-nighter,” and was convinced that students who stayed up all night studying were just poor time managers. I was never so smug again after my Plato Seminar. There were several nights of driving to Open Pantry (open 24 hours) to re-up on Diet Coke in order to finish an analysis of the Gorgias or the Meno just as dawn was breaking over Milwaukee.

I was also taking Metaphysics, taught by the most enthusiastic atheist I had ever encountered. Dr. Algozin was one cheerful, relentless atheist. I was the only woman in that class as well, but it was smaller than my other two classes, and more comfortable. The other students included a young man who dressed every day in three piece suits, carried a briefcase and a rolled up Wall Street Journal, and sweated profusely. The other two students included a farm boy from Iowa who wore overalls to class, quoted the Misfit from Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find at least once a day, and glowered at our atheist professor. Rounding out our little group of metaphysicians was an eerily quiet fellow who slouched back in his seat, took no notes all semester, then blew everyone away in the last week of class with an analysis of the flaws in the arguments of Errol Harris. (Years later, I married him. The quiet fellow, not Harris.) Dr. Algozin, the professor, loved George Santayana, and so I learned more about “tropes” in the philosophy of George Santayana than I had ever expected—or wanted—to learn.

darth-vader-crossed-arms-1280jpg-88461e1280wjpg-67c0c2_1280w
Darth Vader: Not Dr. Vater

Those were my classes. For my research assistantship, I was assigned to Dr. Vater, also my Plato professor. (And yes, we all called him “Darth Vader.”) He gave me what he took to be an ideal job: I was to spend ten hours a week learning how to use Marquette’s fancy new computer so that in the spring semester I could type his book manuscript into it. This was well before the days of the personal computer. Until Dr. Vater gave me this assignment, the only computer I had ever even seen was the one at Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance when I worked there the summer after high school. That computer was a behemoth, and only the very most trained Computer Shamans were allowed to go anywhere near it.

My first research task: find the computer. This task I completed successfully; the madeline-kahn-in-whats-up-docdepartment secretary gave me directions to a large and drafty old garage at the edge of campus, near the freeway. Approaching the site of my new job, I felt a bit like Madeline Kahn in the movie What’s Up, Doc?” The whole scene felt forbidding, strange and weird.

Inside the garage was housed The Computer, walled off from all of us by glass walls. Around the circumference of that walled-in machine were desks with terminals on them. The terminals were, of course, connected to the main frame computer behind the class. They each glowed a ghostly green, and on the unused terminals flickered a tiny cursor: on/off, on/off.

Bravely, I grabbed a terminal and sat myself down. The person in charge of the terminals came over when I beckoned, and showed me how to log into the giant computer behind the wall. He also handed me a dog-eared manual listing all of the prompts and commands I would need. He might as well have handed me the operating instructions to a space shuttle—written in Cyrillic. I knew I was in for a long semester.

me-80
Me Before Graduate School

By the time the annual Christmas Party for the Graduate Students came along, I knew that I had done well, earning two A’s and an A-. On the other hand, my eating disorder was back with a vengeance, and I was a far more rattled and anxious girl than the one who had stood on the steps at Mount Mary College the previous May singing “Climb Every Mountain.” Apparently, it is much easier to sing about climbing mountains than it is to actually climb them.

In the Old West, when a cowboy gets shot, his friends make the decision whether to take him along or leave him to die by asking one question: “Can you stand?” If the cowboy could still stand, he had a decent chance of surviving his wound. I was

me-80-2
Me on my Last Day of Classes: Thinner and A Bit Shaken

wounded, but I was still standing. At that Christmas party, I walked around in a bit of a daze, and whenever one of the professors asked me “How are you doing?” I said “I survived.” When I said this to the Chair, he twinkled at me, and said, “This is all part of the process. You come in thinking you know it all and we spend the first semester destroying you so that we can build you back up to be stronger.” I thought Dr. Coffey sounded a bit like a deranged educational Cartesian, but I smiled and said, “Oh. Hah. Hmmm.”

My second semester as a graduate student was better; I became friends with some funny and wise fellow students, and my second semester professors were not as much from the Nietzschean School of “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Even better, Dr. Vater had looked over my work on the Marquette Computer, and immediately informed Harry Klocker, S.J.—my Aquinas professor that Spring—that I was far more suited to his needs. Fr. Klocker agreed, and I happily ensconced myself in the library, studying Church Latin for Fr. Klocker while another graduate student hiked over to the Garage with the Giant Computer and typed in Dr. Vater’s manuscript.  What with the nicer professors and the more amenable research project, I was actually looking forward to coming back for my second year.

Before we all broke away for the summer, Dr. Coffey summoned me into his office. “I have good news for you!” he beamed at me. “We had our meeting about all the new students, and based on your grades and evaluations this year, we are moving you from Research Assistant to Teaching Fellow one year early! Starting next Fall, you will be teaching two full section of Logic! Yes! You’re Welcome!”

Wait. What?  “You mean, I will be a Teaching Assistant for one of the Professors?” I asked. “Oh no,” Dr. Coffey said. “The Philosophy Department doesn’t have TA’s. We give our students their very own courses to teach, after they have earned the equivalent of a Master’s Degree. In your case, we are saying that you are ready to move up now.”

I knew that after two years doing research, graduate students were moved up to Teaching Fellowships. But I had assumed I would be sitting in a classroom at Marquette Law School by then. Teaching was not ever supposed to be part of the plan.

“Oh, No,” I responded. “No. I am not. I am not ready. I don’t want to teach. I didn’t come here wanting to teach. I like research. I love research. I have never wanted to be a teacher. Thanks so much, but no. I decline.”

Dr. Coffey paused for a moment, then scowled. “Hmm. You’re not catching on. I’m not asking you. I’m telling you. The Graduate Committee has moved you forward. You aren’t a Research Assistant anymore. If you want your scholarship and your 660.00 a month stipend, you are a Teaching Fellow. In Logic. Two sections. Next Fall.”

I had no idea how to even begin to picture myself as a teacher. I was twenty-three years old; many of my students would be just one or two years younger than I. Watching my own professors at Mount Mary College, I was keenly aware that they were possessed of vast amounts of knowledge. I knew next to nothing, and yet I was going to be plopped down in front of two sections of thirty students each with the expectation that they would emerge in mere months with a working knowledge of modus ponens and modus tollens?  Oh God, I thought. I have a lot of work to do.

Over the course of the summer of 1981, I chose the textbook I would use for my classes, opened the book up to the first page, and worked my way through the entire text, completing every problem until my memory of how to do symbolic logic was fresh. I made meticulous notes on each chapter and outlined lectures for the semester. I went back to the syllabus from my Logic class at Mount Mary College, and used it to model my own versions of paper assignments. When the first week of September 1981 rolled around, I was as prepared as I was ever going to be.

“Prepared,” however, is not the same thing as “Ready.” In no way did I feel ready to stand in front of a classroom and act as if I knew anything. I drove to campus that first morning and wished the tires would fly off the car so that I’d have a reason not to show up. To my consternation, the car remained sturdy, and I arrived at Marquette with time to spare. Before heading over to Marquette Hall, I stopped at Coughlin Hall to drop off my coat and books; there I ran into my old Metaphysics professor, Dr. Algozin, the cheery atheist.  He was on his way out of the Men’s Room. “Oh Hi!” he chirped. “How are you?”

“Well, Dr. Algozin,” I said, “I am pretty awful. I have to teach for the first time in a few minutes, and I am a mess.”

“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Algozin laughed, slapping me on the shoulder. “That never goes away. I’m almost twenty years in, and I still get nauseous on the first day of classes.” He swung his head left to indicate the door of the Men’s Room. “I teach in a few minutes, too. First class of the term. I just threw up! You’ll be fine! See Ya!” and off he went, whistling under his breath.

another-mu-hall
Marquette Hall

With no more tasks to distract me and no other professors to cheer me on in whatever way they saw fit, I trudged over to Marquette Hall. Room 100 was a lecture hall with desks on risers and a blackboard at the front of the room. There were thirty bodies in chairs when I entered the classroom. I placed my notes on the lectern, cleared my throat, and said, “Good Morning. I am Miss Maloney, and I will be your Instructor for Logic this term. I am here today because I am getting paid to talk about Logic. What are you doing here? Why should anyone study Logic, anyway? How is all this talk about Logic not a waste of time? What good will it do any of us? What’s the point of this?”

I looked up. At least seven people had their hands up. I called on them, and other hands went up. I started to write on the board, and every time I responded to one student, another hand would rise, another student would ask a question. I was talking about ideas with intelligent people just a bit younger than I was. They were asking good questions. I was answering them, often by asking other questions. I was going to get paid to do this. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I was home.

The bell rang. I couldn’t believe that forty minutes had passed. It had seemed like ten. On their way out the door, several students said, “Great class! Good conversation! See you Wednesday!” I couldn’t wait. I could use some of the great ideas and questions from this day to make my opening for the next class even stronger. I started scribbling down new ideas, imagining how I would start class on Wednesday, imagining how I might move into the opening chapter of the text.

There were, of course, some bumpy days ahead of me. I was teaching two sections of Logic, but I had never in my life crafted a syllabus, made up an exam, created a paper assignment, or graded student work. I learned some necessary skills the hard way; when I created my first Logic midterm exam, I figured that if it took me thirty minutes to “take” my test, the students should be fine in their allotted forty-five minutes.

That turned out to be a wildly wrong assumption; none of my students finished in the allotted time. As the minutes ticked past, the smell of panic and sweat permeated the classroom; two girls cried. One fellow was in ROTC and it was uniform inspection day. The test freaked him out so badly that he threw up on his dress shoes and I had to write a note to his commanding officer explaining what happened. No one passed the exam; no one even finished it.

The following class period, when I handed back the tests, I apologized to the students, and told them that there would be another exam in a week; I would be throwing this one away. They forgave me. They took the makeup test and mostly did fine, and I learned that an exam that takes them forty-five minutes should take me about five.

Another time that semester, I realized after I got home from my day’s classes that I had taught Aristotle’s Square of Opposition incorrectly. After two nights of agonizing about my error, I walked into class and told my students to rip out the pages in their notebooks from the previous class, because I had messed them up bigtime. Then I retaught the Aristotle, and they were fine. From the beginning of my life as a teacher, I have found that, when I admit my limitations, acknowledge my mistakes, and make sure the students never suffer because of my errors, they are generous, kind and forgiving.

I taught Logic again the following semester. I loved it just as much, perhaps more. In May, Dr. Coffey called me into his office to tell me that my grades were excellent and my teaching evaluations impressive; the graduate faculty had decided to promote me from teaching Logic to Philosophy of Human Nature for the next academic year.

I now knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to teach philosophy. I hadn’t been certain of much up to that point, but I was certain of that. This new certainty, however, meant that I would be staying at Marquette for my Ph.D. Because I had always operated under the assumption that I would “opt out” at the Master’s Degree level, I had blithely ignored the Ph.D. requirements. Now that I wasn’t leaving, they were pertinent.

I would have to complete at least one more year of coursework, pass proficiency exams in both French and German (neither of which I had ever studied; I had six years of Latin under my belt), pass an eight hour written comprehensive exam on the history of Western philosophy and a three hour oral exam on two areas of my choosing. When that was behind me, I would be writing a dissertation on some original idea in philosophy; I would have to find a topic, choose a director and a dissertation board, write the thing and then defend it publicly.  In short, I was in for a long walk through several more circles of hell.

I didn’t care. I knew what I wanted to do. My life’s work was to teach Philosophy, and I had nearly missed it. I had ended up in Room 100 of Marquette Hall in September of 1981 either through a series of coincidences or the whimsical turnings of God’s will for my life. (For more evidence of this whole “God-in-my-Life Thing, see here.) With no real idea why, I had applied to graduate school, and I went only because I knew that I loved doing philosophy and would do it for as long as life let me. Good Catholic girl that I was, I saw in the twists and turns that led me from a required Core Course at Mount Mary College when I was seventeen years old to a cavernous lecture hall at Marquette University five years later a plan whose author wasn’t entirely me. I decided then and there that the God who somehow got me to Room 100 would show me the way through the forest of obstacles that now confronted me. I was ready.

 

 

A Frozen Playboy, A Bowl of Ice Cream, and the Wages of Sin

I am not a bit proud to say that I was a snoop as a child, always interested in whatever was going on behind the scenes in other peoples’ lives. I regularly used to read both of my sisters’ diaries. I went through drawers, I felt around on closet shelves. I was ever-intrigued to find out what I wasn’t being told, the story-behind-the-story. My unhealthy curiosity is how I found out a lot of information about my family. It is also how I came to view my first Playboy magazine.

I was snooping around in my brother Johnnie’s closet. He was a college man, and I thought he was the height of adult sophistication. Johnnie had a beer glass with a bottom that lit up when it was empty, a board game called “Pass Out” involving people drinking on passoutcommand until someone—you guessed it—passed out, and even a black market telephone. When I was young, it was against the law to own one’s own telephone, and woe betide to anyone who dared.  The Telephone Company owned all the phones, and that was that. If you wanted a phone or if you moved to a new place, you petitioned the Phone Czar to grace you with one of her telephones, and if fortune smiled upon you, she would let you rent one.

phoneEvery month, you paid rent on every phone in your house and when you moved, you left the phones. They were never yours. Outlaws like Jesse James or Richard Nixon might steal phones, but no upstanding citizen would dare. The Phone Company was the only game in town, and you risked fines, prison, and—scariest of all—loss of phone privileges if you messed with Ma Bell. I used to feel an actual shiver of fear every time I looked at Johnnie’s contraband phone. It was an old fashioned black model and he had boldly plugged it right into the Telephone Company’s jack in his bedroom. It worked fine, but I felt butterflies every time I used it, imagining G-men bursting through the front door and cuffing me for breaking the United States Telephone Act.

The illegal phone was a symbol of everything that was fascinating about Johnnie’s room. I almost always found something of interest in my treasure hunts. One day in particular, I was nosing around in his closet. Johnnie’s bedroom had, for a time, been our family room, and the shelf of his spacious closet was still used for storage of odd things. There was, for instance, a very large statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which I remember vividly because it terrified me.

After the sinMary had a very calm expression on her face, and her arms were sort of reaching out toward me, but she was barefoot and standing on a very large and ugly snake. When I first encountered Mary of the Closet, I was fairly young and hadn’t yet digested the whole “serpent in the garden” story, so I had no idea why God’s mother was serenely squishing an angry snake to death with her bare feet. I was used to hearing Mary referred to in our family prayers as “full of grace,” as a “lovely lady dressed in blue,” as a sweet and pure maiden. I didn’t know how to reconcile those descriptions with this snake-killer who was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and who seemed to look at me with an expression that said, “Don’t even think about crossing me. Ask the snake how that turned for him.”

book-of-knowledgeNext to Scary Mary rested our family’s one and only set of encyclopedias, a set of volumes called The Book of Knowledge. I am not sure when the Book of Knowledge was published, but I do recall that when I tried to use it to write an essay on the Unification of Italy, which happened in the late nineteenth century, the Book of Knowledge did not have the updated information; inside its pages, Italy was still a collection of territories grouped around the Papal States.

Before the Internet, our only way to do research for school papers—or even to learn something out of natural curiosity–was to look it up in an encyclopedia. Libraries were good sources for encyclopedias, but some lucky and/or fortunate families owned a whole set of their own. I envied those families, because they never had to trudge out into the cold and slush of a February night to get to the library to look up information for their homework. We never owned our own set of encyclopedias, but we did have The Book of Knowledge, with its cracked brown bindings and pages musty with mottled green spots of mildew.

My mother’s attitude for years was that knowledge was knowledge; the truth doesn’t change, and The Book of Knowledge was a fine resource. She finally changed her mind in the early 1970’s, when her oldest grandchild had to write an essay for school about Abraham Lincoln. My sister Marbeth, John’s mother, did not own a set of encyclopedias, so she sent him over to our house to consult The Book of Knowledge. This essay was a major part of John’s grade in fourth grade History. As my sister looked over his paper, she told John that she was disappointed in him for making things up instead of doing his research, making vague statements such as “Lincoln’s mother died of ‘a strange sickness.’” Clearly stung, John objected that he did do his research, so Marbeth challenged him to show her this “research.” There it was, in black and white in The Book of Knowledge: “Abraham Lincoln’s mother died of a strange sickness.” The Book of Knowledge was retired as a research tool at that point, but it remained on Johnnie’s closet shelf, because my mother loved books too much to ever throw one out, and no one wanted the Book of Knowledge.

On this particular day of snooping through Johnnie’s closet, my hands brushed against something unfamiliar behind The Book of Knowledge. Intrigued, I dragged a chair over to the closet to get more height and increase my reach, and my hand closed around a thick magazine. I pulled it out and down and there it was: A Playboy Magazine! This was seriously degenerate stuff in our Irish Catholic Household, and of course I was mesmerized.

No one was home that night except my grandmother, and she was sound asleep, so I took the magazine into my room to look it over. I slowly paged through it, fascinated but not sure what to make of what I saw. In those days of Playboy Magazine, there were no naked men, and the women were only naked from the waist up. What confused me was the pictures. There were a lot of women in this magazine, and they were all doing normal things like brushing horses, arranging books, or walking through gardens–but without all of their clothes on. To my preteen self, they just looked silly, and I couldn’t imagine why they would be fun to look at. In addition to the pictures, there was a joke page and some articles about politics. Even in my befuddlement, I could tell that this was all somehow titillating; clearly it was coming from a place of adult sophistication that deeply intrigued me.

Since no one was home except my grandmother, and she was snoring contentedly, I went downstairs and fixed myself a giant bowl of vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s Syrup and brought it upstairs to eat while I studied this magazine. About halfway through my ice cream and a third of the way through the Playboy, I heard noises downstairs. Egads! People were home, much sooner than I had expected. There was no way I could be caught with either the ice cream or the magazine. Thinking fast, I grabbed both and stepped out onto the tiny balcony off the bedroom I shared with my sister Susan. If I stood on the balcony, I could just reach the gutter of the roof of the house, so I rolled up the magazine and shoved it into the gutter, along with the ice cream, still in its bowl.

ice-creamNow of course, I had every intention of retrieving both ice cream and Playboy at the earliest possible date, but as soon as I had secreted the evidence of my crime, I felt weighed down with shame and guilt. I hated thinking about what a terrible person I was: sneaking food I wasn’t supposed to be eating, getting even fatter than I already was, sneaking around in my brother’s room and going through his things, looking at a smutty magazine, which was so awful a deed I couldn’t even imagine confessing it at my next confession (which, I knew, I was now going to have to do) and then hiding the magazine in the gutter.

My guilt was so great, in fact, that I pushed the thoughts of what I had done out of my mind every time they came up. Rather than get the contraband out of the gutter and back to each thing’s rightful place, I procrastinated, not wanting to deal with the visual evidence of what was surely a Big Mortal Sin. This denial went on for weeks. Of course I worried that Johnnie might have at some point gone looking for his magazine, and I worried about how much he would worry if he found it missing. I understood that there was no way Johnnie could casually ask, “Hey, family! Has anyone seen my HUGE MORTAL SIN MAGAZINE?” I really felt for him. Still, I made no moves toward the balcony. I was the perfect example of “Out of sight/Out of mind.” Sadly, the saying isn’t “Out of sight/Out of mind/Gone from Reality.” I understood that fact viscerally one morning at the beginning of the spring thaw in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

On the morning in question, we were eating breakfast in our breakfast nook under the upstairs balcony. My father suddenly looked up from his Chicago Tribune and scowled. Following his eyes, I saw water. A lot of water, and it was sluicing down our kitchen wall. Uttering a few choice words, my father stood up and walked over to the wall to examine the situation. As he poked and prodded, his language got louder and more colorful. There was water all along the wall, behind the paint and up in the ceiling.

Cursing the weather, the walls, and whatever else was ruining his Saturday morning, my father summoned my brothers and donned his old navigator’s jacket to go up on the roof and find out what the problem was. This was the moment when my entire insides turned to liquid. Just as I heard my father swearing and calling for my brothers, I realized exactly what had happened. Spring had started the process of melting the snow on our roof and the water was going into the gutter and down the downspouts….except where there was a frozen Playboy magazine and half eaten bowl of ice cream stuck in its way.

I died a thousand deaths that morning as I watched my father and brothers trudge up the stairs, carrying a bucket and a shovel, then heard them hacking away at something, all of them muttering things like “What the hell?” It was not a surprise to me when my father called down to my mother that some &^&* object was encased in ice and blocking the gutter, causing the water to stream down into the kitchen. At that point, I remembered an urgent errand I had to run right at that moment, and I left the house, trembling with anxiety, guilt, shame and horror.

I do not know which of them first realized that the gutter outside our bedroom was stuffed with a Playboy Magazine and a three month old bowl of ice cream. I can only imagine the scene on that balcony when my father dug the whole sorry mess out of the gutter while both of my brothers watched, one in confusion and the other in consternation. Knowing my family as I do, my best bet is that not one of the three of them said a word; I am betting that they silently cleaned out the gutter, discarded the magazine, and brought the ice cream bowl down to the kitchen.

A few days later, my father called a handyman and he came in to repair the kitchen wall. For weeks after The Incident, I waited in agony for my day of reckoning; the ice cream bowl could only have been my calling card. I don’t know if my father talked to Johnnie, or for that matter if my brother Jamie talked to either of them. Even though my Irish Catholic family’s penchant for Not Talking About Stuff Like This saved me from that conversation, I knew what I had to do; some weeks later I finally summoned what courage I had and slinked off to confession. When I blurted the story out to Fr. Heaney, he paused for a moment and then asked me if I understood about hormones. Unprepared for this question, I replied that I did not. Father then explained hormones to me in a monologue that was kind, patient and excruciatingly awkward. I don’t remember what my penance was, but I remember how awful I felt kneeling in the confessional while Father talked about puberty.

playboy-philosophyFrom that day forward, I was a better, more moral person. I would like to say it was because I saw the light and chose virtue, but the truth is that, after the exquisitely awful experience of discussing hormones with Fr. Heaney, I was a new girl. Whenever I was tempted to do something that I knew was wrong, I thought about how very much I did not want to have to confess it. In the end, then, the one thing I learned from reading Playboy magazine was that sins are really never as exciting in reality as they sound in theory, and they are definitely not worth their cost. Not exactly the “Playboy philosophy,” which in the end is fine with me.

 

The Day That God Spoke German

thljaqerceWhen I went to graduate school to study philosophy, my intention was to hide out from the “real world” for a few more years doing what I loved before going to law school. I had fallen in love with philosophy in college, but I knew that no one makes a living as a “philosopher,” so I would eventually have to be practical and look toward developing some skills that would make me employable.
Three of my older siblings had done what smart college students who aren’t good in math or science do—they went to law school. Like them, I was smart and got good grades in everything not related to math or science. I felt certain that law school was my eventual destination, followed by a well-paying job and a life. The fact that just the words “law school” made my throat close up didn’t seem pertinent next to brute facts like my need for food, rent money and maybe even health insurance.
That throat-closing thing did convince me, however, to buy myself some time; I applied for and received a scholarship and fellowship from Marquette University to study philosophy. I was accepted into the Ph.D. program, which required three years of coursework, reading knowledge of French and German, oral and written comprehensive exams, and a dissertation. I wasn’t worried about all that, however, because my “secret plan” was to take the Master’s Degree option offered at the end of the second year. The Master’s Degree did not require both languages; I could, in fact, use Latin as my language. (I studied Latin for four years in high school and two in college.) Nor did the Master’s Degree require those scary-sounding comprehensive exams and dissertation. My plan was to love philosophy for two more precious years, opt out with a Master’s Degree, go to law school, and start my real life as a practical person.

At the end of my first year, the Director of Graduate Students summoned me to his office. I had done well in my classes, and the professors for whom I did research were pleased with my work. As a reward, Dr. Coffey informed me, I would be awarded a Teaching Fellowship after just one year in the program instead of the usual two. I expressed my profound gratitude for this offer, and firmly rejected it. I had no desire to teach anything to anyone, ever. I just wanted to study philosophy for one more year, and……you guessed it. Onward to law school.

downloadDr. Coffey chuckled at my polite refusal and said, “Maybe I don’t make myself clear. We are offering you a Teaching Fellowship. We have decided that you are going to teach. The Research Assistantship is off the table. You’re a Teaching Fellow now.” Oh. I swallowed hard and said, “Thank you. In that case, I accept.”
I spent the summer of that first year preparing to teach Logic. Unlike Teaching Assistants in other programs, Teaching Fellows in the philosophy department taught our own independent classes, unsupervised by a lead professor. I was on my own, in a job I had never asked for and was pretty sure I would not be good at.
Thus it was that in the autumn of 1981 I walked into Room 100 of Marquette Hall and faced thirty college freshman who looked even more frightened than I. Fortified with my Graduate School Breakfast of a Tab, two pieces of Bazooka bubble gum and four aspirin, I called my first class to order.Before the hour was over, I knew that I had stumbled, backwards and complaining, directly into the center of my life. I never wanted to walk out of a classroom again after those first thirty minutes.
In the course of that year, I made a few half-hearted attempts to talk myself out of teaching, but I knew I was done for. I loved every moment I spent with my classes, and by December I could not imagine walking away. My family knew I was loving the teaching thing, and my mother interpreted this as a good sign for my future brilliant career in the law. I would do well in court.
By the Spring semester, I knew that I was never going to see the inside of a law school. I was going to stay, and get a Ph.D. in philosophy. And that meant I had to face the brute facts of the Ph.D. requirements. I had blithely disregarded those requirements when I entered the program, because I had an Exit Strategy. With my Exit Strategy gone, I had to face the horrors that stood in front of me. First, I had to pass those language exams. Only after passing them could I even register for Comps. Only after passing Comps could I assemble a dissertation board and write my dissertation. Job #1, then had to be languages.
My Latin background was a big help when I decided to teach myself French. In the summer of that second year, I worked my way through a “Reading French” textbook and in the Fall of 1982, I took the Reading Exam in French. I translated the page of Jean-Paul Sartre’s L’imagination they handed me well enough to pass, and it was on to Step #2: German. I had studied German briefly in the third grade, but Frau Mittmann didn’t really teach us much beyond the German words for the weather and Easter. (see My Failure to Avoid German Class ) I didn’t hold out much hope that any of my previous German was going to be useful.
I signed up for a class that was offered to all graduate students who needed to pass a German exam, taught in the late afternoon by a beleaguered young German professor who didn’t have tenure. I took an instant dislike to German and he took an instant dislike to me. That might have had something to do with the fact that, on the first day, when he asked us what German might be good for in our lives, I had volunteered, “Barking orders at people?” In any event, he wasn’t teaching very much and I wasn’t learning very much, and I stopped attending the class after a few weeks.
Nonetheless, I had to solve my German Problem. After that first year of teaching Logic, I had been promoted and was now teaching Philosophy of Man, and I loved teaching that class even more. I felt in my bones that I was meant to be a philosophy professor, and yet there was German standing squarely in my path.I asked one of my philosophy professors who was fluent in German, Roland Teske, S. J., if he would tutor me.

teske
Roland Teske, S;J.

He said that he would, and two other graduate students joined us. Fr. Teske, bless his heart, gave us his time and his energy, but we were all simply terrible at German. One of the other students in the class, a fellow named Dave, would read his translations out loud; they sounded like haiku written by a drunk man. After spewing out a mess of disconnected words in no particular order, he would invariably say, “My syntax might be a bit off.” I remember thinking, “What would it be like to have that much self-confidence?”

As the weeks went by and the exam loomed ever closer, I worked harder and harder on my German. I still remember sitting in one session when it was my turn to read my translation. I struggled along bravely, ending with the words, “And then he vaulted over the arch.” Silence. Fr. Teske stroked his mustache for a few seconds, staring at his desk. Then he said, “Well, no. Not quite. That last sentence actually says “He changed his mind.” Oh God, I thought. I am not going to pass this German exam.
The exam, I knew, was going to be a page of German text from a major German philosopher. I feverishly studied texts from Hegel, Nietzsche, and Kant, trying desperately to translate something from each of them into recognizable English. The night before the exam, I did something I didn’t do nearly enough of in those days. I prayed. I told God that I was pretty sure I was supposed to teach philosophy, that I loved it with all my heart and my students loved me. That I was really, really scared to take comps and write a dissertation. That I knew how hard it would be to find a job once I got this incredibly difficult degree. But I was willing to trudge forward and move through all of it, because it felt like the thing I was being called to do.images I remember sitting on my bedroom floor in front of the door that opened onto my little balcony, and staring at the moon, saying, “Hey, if You really want me here, doing this, I need some help. Whatever you can do. Thanks.”
That night, I dreamed I was taking the German Exam. Unlike my classic anxiety dreams, where I was late for a test and couldn’t read the words on the page, however, in this dream I was reading the ninth paragraph of the Critique of Pure Reason. It was in German, but I was reading it in English. I woke up with a start the next morning, and the mood of the dream stayed with me. I felt weirdly calm.
It had snowed the night before, and I was borrowing my mother’s car to drive to Marquette. On my way out the door, I renewed my prayer, reminding God that I needed some help if I was ever going to stand in a classroom as a philosophy professor. Minutes later, I managed to steer my mother’s silver Monte Carlo straight into a snow bank at the bottom of the driveway. I was thoroughly stuck. Panicked, I ran back into the house to call the Philosophy department and tell them I would be late while my father got out a shovel and a bag of rock salt. As he dug and I spun the wheels, I thought, “THIS is your answer, God? Really? I’m going to miss the whole frigging exam because of a snowbank? THANKS.”

My father dug me out, and I raced down the Menomonee River Parkway to Marquette, parked the Monte Carlo and ran across the campus to Coughlin Hall. I was late. I was allowed to take the exam, but I would not be able to stay past the end time to make up for the time I had lost. Sweating and out of breath, I tried to calm myself and took a few deep breaths. I looked down at the page to see what my passage was. It was the ninth paragraph of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.

200px-kritik_der_reinen_vernunft_erstausgabe
Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason–in German.

I closed my eyes, and remembered my oh-so-vivid dream from the night before. Then I picked up my pen. 

Two days later, Fr. Teske’s best buddy and my Aquinas professor, Harry Klocker, S. J., stopped me in the hallway. I hadn’t heard anything about the exam, and I didn’t know how long I would have to wait to find out whether I had passed. With a twinkle in his eye, Fr. Klocker said, “So Roland (Fr. Teske) wants to know how in the hell you passed the German exam with flying colors!”

I had passed the German exam. It took me four more years to make my way through the rest of my coursework, my oral and written comps, and my dissertation, but I got that Ph.D. and this year I begin my 29th year teaching philosophy at St. Catherine University. I wrote my dissertation on Gabriel Marcel’s critique of Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God. As for me, I felt pretty sure that God existed. And He was very, very good at translating Immanuel Kant.

well%20you%20did%20ask%20for%20a%20sign