General

Greek Theatre Revisited

I left Los Angeles with Rosita’s father, brother and his wife for San Francisco the day before Lawrence’s commencement. This was a familiar trip: Rosita’s siblings had driven us up quite a few times in the past, but this was the first time Rosita was not with me for the land trip. I sat with my father-in-law in the back listening to the music of the sixties and seventies, beginning with Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence, punctuated by snores and driving commentaries. Rosita’s father is 86 and has given up driving recently; but having lived in the Bay Area before should still be rather familiar with the area. He would wake up, look around and tell us where we were or ask whether we had driven past certain landmarks.

In another car making a parallel trip from Newport Beach were Rosita’s sister, her husband and his mother. Our niece is a Berkeley freshman and they are collecting her back to LA. In the meantime, Stephanie drove down from Davis to Berkeley where she joined her brother before coming down to San Francisco to have dinner with me. There was going to be a mini-reunion in Berkeley, and in anticipation, Rosita had detailed me to host an after-commencement lunch or dinner to thank everyone for joining me for the happy occasion.

I would skip details of the meeting with the children. We asked questions of each other and clarified facts. Stephanie had decided to come home for a few weeks in August, but Lawrence had yet to firm up his plans, short or long term. I shared with them my cautious optimism that whereas their mother’s constitution was not as strong as before, there was hopefully no immediate danger of a rapid deterioration, but added that even in normal circumstances, a family should always endeavour to be together as much as possible and whenever possible. More importantly, they must decide for themselves what to do, when to do it and how, rather than doing what others expect them to do.

Greek Theatre looked pretty much the same three years ago. It was the very venue for the commencement of Stephanie and all sorts of déjà vu thoughts came up. Rosita missed that occasion too because she was in the midst of chemotherapy. The slight differences were: this time it took place in the morning in perfect weather and California sunshine and there were fewer graduating seniors: I think there were over 500 graduates in Stephanie’s ceremony, compared with 350 this time. The fewer numbers meant that all candidates to be conferred degrees, including 15 Ph.D., could be seated on stage. Last time, Stephanie and her classmates sat in the pit of the amphitheatre.

The programme was scheduled to start at 9:00am, and it did as young men and women in academic gowns and mortarboards walked up the stage from both sides of the theatre to the tune of Land of Hope and Glory, which instantly triggered tears of joy from quite a few parents and friends in the congregation.

We had no idea whether Lawrence would come in from the left side or right, and they were not lined up by alphabetic order either, so we kept the cameras swiveling. Lawrence finally emerged on the horizon in plain black – many of his classmates were donning garlands and paraphernalia, which prompted my sister-in-law to get him a garland before he had his official picture taken on stage, the one in which he shook hands with the Dean of Psychology as the latter gave him a note on how to receive his genuine certificate later.

Professors of Psychology, particularly those in Berkeley, could have a more difficult or at least a different job, for as they taught their students the tricks of the trade, they could not help being turned into subjects for psychoanalysis or study. Consequently, they are mostly smooth talkers and would always seek to be seen as well composed and finely balanced individuals who can take in stride all things coming their way. For example, in his welcome address, the Chair of the Department of Psychology urged his audience, parents and students alike, to be prepared for surprises and changes in each other, to have an open mind on their behaviour if they appear to be different from last time they met, and above all, be tolerant of each other.

Perhaps the key message is that people tend to think of themselves first and foremost. Thus, a graduating student would not normally be too conscious that while he was away, his parents and friends were also growing and developing, while the parents at home might not be aware of what the return graduate had gone through in and outside campus, from negotiating a lease to diet adjustment, from bargaining for higher grades to living with fellow students of various sexual inclination and divergent interests, not to mention having to put up with the idiosyncrasies of people in the campus.

True to democracy, Berkeley style, the graduating seniors voted a professor in the Department of Psychology to be their commencement speaker, as if they had not had enough on the subject they had studied for a few years. This was a Professor Oliver John and he was obviously popular. I think his specialty was personalities and how they affected and interacted with society. It was a good presentation, not too academic, suitably humorous and not to long. I think the Professor said that personalities could select and unselect consequences, be perceived differently by different people in different circumstances, can make a difference, and above all change over time. His researches on personalities had told him that many marriages between young couples ended in divorce, young meaning those below 30. His advice to the young people therefore was, and rather practical and sensible too, skip the first marriage and focus on what they are doing in life and do not marry too young.

As I negotiated through the crowd to meet up with Lawrence and the rest of the families, I took a last look at the Greek Theatre, wondering when I would be there again if at all. Such thoughts did not come up three years ago. Indeed, as we left Berkeley, the campus and the city, for my hotel in San Francisco, I could not help asking myself whether there would be causes or occasions in the future to get me to this place again, the place I first asked my brother-in-law to show us when we were on our honeymoon, the epicenter for strawberry statement, the city of street sleepers and the homeless, and a seat of learning.

Next week, I would talk to you on Rosita’s baptism.

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