Friday, April 11, 2008

How It All Started

In 1968 Alex Lipson was a charismatic, soon-to-be-middle-aged professor and Soviet tour organizer. He is pictured here somewhere in Yugoslavia (yes that's a fez and no the Speedo is not customary - or even appropriate - attire). He taught Russian and later Slavic linguistics and he did become a noted purveyor of creative pedagogical approaches to teaching foreign languages. In that year Alex fulfilled a great personal ambition by moving into a very large house with a beautiful English-style garden in a leafy West Cambridge neighborhood 10 minutes walk from Harvard Square. It was a willowy, slightly decrepit wood-shingle house with a high cupola offering a view of half of Cambridge. This gray lady of a house had 8 legitimate bedrooms, three bathrooms and a water closet off the kitchen. The street was a cul-de-sac with only 6 or 7 houses, most of them occupied by retired Harvard professors or other quiet and prestigious (and wealthy and well-bred) sorts, all surrounded by the wooded grounds of the Harvard Smithsonian Observatory on two sides.

Alex hoped to move his 4 children: Sonia, Nathan, Sam and Mimi, and his wife Joanna, into this house. He imagined teaching evening classes in the large living room and launching his Soviet camping tours (see photo) from the grounds of this estate, dotted with tents filled with campers, Russians students and Sovietologists who were there to get "oriented" in advance of the flight to Europe. These tours absolutely deserve their own stories and I hope some veterans of the tours do contribute a few of their own to this blog. In brief, Alex bought cheap blocks of charter airline tickets, sold them to his tour group members along with his services. These included arranging for the Soviet visas to allow camping (quite a feat in itself), renting a fleet of VW buses and hiring of mechanically-inclined drivers interested in going to Russia (at no pay in some cases in exchange for free passage on the trip), acquiring leaky, moldy canvas tents, securing reservations for hotels in cities where indoor accommodations were politically unavoidable, and providing general insider chutzpah from an ebullient and hilarious linguistics professor who taught Russian to anyone who wanted to learn. He generally tried to wrangle the tour members some slack to wander around Russian cities with as little assistance as possible from the state-run tourist agency. This was not all drudgery for Alex, since he loved being on the road and he had cultivated a lifelong fascination with Russian and Soviet culture. The trips were freewheeling to the point of careening nearly out of control on occasion, but Alex improved his orchestration of the tour each summer and he relished the adventure. It was a great sight, when I was 7 or 8, to see the back yard filled with old Army tents, the beginning of the annual campaign to the Eastern Bloc. Anyway, the big house did give Lipson Travel (LipTrav) a great stage to launch these tours, but that was only a couple of weeks out of the year.

The bigger plan for this house was a little vague and was definitely not grounded in a working marriage or a family that would stay together as a unit for any period of time after that. As a four-year old I certainly couldn't grasp his larger vision, though I suspect that being older would not have made his plan any clearer. When my parents split, just about the time my father took possession of the house, it was agreed that my older sister Sonia and I would live with him, while my little sister Mimi and older brother Nate would be under my mother's supervision. To be honest I don't suppose the term supervision applies much to what either of them did provide their children, maybe auspices would be a better term here. I can't imagine that it was easy to have my mother living at another address, but I really don't remember feeling a lot of grief about this. She did live in an apartment in the neighborhood and I often ended up at her place, meandering back on public transportation after school (this was true from the ago of about 6). As with most young kids, and given the small sample size of my experience, the things that happened in my family seemed acceptably normal, even sanguine. My younger sister and I had mostly been too young to have clear memories of the rancor that led to the separation. In this respect we were the luckiest of the four and our post-separation lives were largely free of parental conflict. We mostly went to the same schools and had no instructions to go one place or another. We usually let our boredom break the tie. It was, from my recollections, a stable and entertaining arrangement.

For me there was even the feeling, like a closely held secret, that life was exceptional, or at least wilder and less predictable, compared with other families. There was also defiance, a sense of purpose, and an intention to survive. Over time I learned that we were an eccentric, precocious, undisciplined, argumentative, reckless, godless, charming, cynical, stubborn and needy family. There was a special pride, always, in being stalwart in the face of adversity. Toughness and resilience were our badge. It seemed like most other kids were sheltered and too dependent on their parents ("really it's not that hard", I recall thinking quite a lot when observing friends struggling to manage some logistical knot). So the chaos and poor planning was forgiven and often welcome, because we got to show our stuff, ignore rules, and run free. We were Alex and Joanna's kids, self-guided survivors, world travelers, as crafty and tenacious as raccoons.

One reason to question Alex's sweeping gesture , this purchase of an absurdly large house for a mid-sized family with modest expectations, was that he couldn't really afford it. He put most of his personal savings into the down payment on this huge $92,500 edifice (an enormous sum in the late '60s) and could look forward to 30 years of bank payments, taxes, heat and repairs on a well-worn turn of the century structure in a high property tax bracket. He also had no real need for these eight bedrooms now that he was going to be living here without his wife and two of his children. Alex was not accustomed to conceding to practical limitations and it's reasonable to suppose that he had some larger communitarian, anarchic vision of the things that you could do with such a large house. Remember too, it was 1968 and this was Cambridge so the possible and the fantastically unwise were often at close quarters.

So Alex plowed ahead. And after several weeks of wandering around this place with his 11-year old daughter and 4-year old son, migrating from empty room to empty room, it became clear that a recently separated man with partial custody had no use for such a big house. Who would guess that he would soon succeed in antagonizing his privileged abutters and making a mockery of zoning laws that should have kept him from filling his overgrown and soon-to-be blighted property with strange tenants. What were his options? It was pretty clear that he needed to produce a cash stream to remain at this ivied address. Who knows, maybe he was weighing these obstacles in his mind all along. Here it gets more complicated, since the purely financial challenge of maintaining such an expense was going to be solved by other moving parts in his life

So, I digress in order to explain.

In the late 1950s young professor Lipson had become affiliated with new ideas about language acquisition while teaching Russian at MIT. His excitement for these ideas, and the inherently disruptive approach they offered to teaching and learning language, led him to start offering evening seminars in his home, often well into the night. One of the family stories relates Alex's pronouncement to a group of attendees, that anyone who wanted to talk about linguistics could climb up the fire escape anytime, day or night. I'm sure my mother appreciated this generous offer, with little Sonia (1 and 2-years old) sleeping quietly in the other room. As the academic orthodoxy of the time did not accept many of these principles, these lectures engaged Harvard linguistic grad students and other curious polymaths in conspiracy intended to promote this new school of linguistics. These ideas were being conjured and preached by his friend and MIT teaching colleague Noam Chomsky, with whom he shared an admiration for the “deep grammar” theories developed by Roman Jakobson and others in the 1940’s and '50’s. By 1968 he was no longer teaching Russian at MIT, had accepted and left a teaching post at Cornell, expanded the Soviet camping tours to other parts of the world, continued writing an eccentric Russian textbook as a platform for his ideas about teaching language, accepted a short term position with the Peace Corps as an instructor for volunteers attempting to teach English as a foreign Language, and flirted briefly with a Japanese investor who was interested in developing language instruction tapes that would teach you in your sleep.

Alex, it so happened, had cultivated the loyalty and interest of many students from his classes at MIT, Cornell and Harvard, enamored by his mischievous nature and inviting curiosity. He also had many young admirers from his eccentric and “loosely structured” camping tours of the Soviet Union. These people were drawn to his charisma and fearlessness, his genuine anti-authoritarian zeal for undermining systems of command and control, his total absorption with the Russian language, Slavic linguistics, the hidden rules that govern acquisition of second languages, the surreal ideological precepts of the Soviet Union as they layered onto an ancient Slavic culture, and of course the intrigue and exhilarating chaos of leading VW buses filled with American university students on state-sanctioned camping tours through totalitarian Peoples’ Republics. In a display of pure nerve and virtuosity he was able to unify these passions in a splendidly ramified career as a professor, tour organizer and author who had acquired a working knowledge of two dozens languages and retained a commitment to etymologies, broken mill towns of the northeast, and personal social anarchy.

Given all these interests and the growing herd of young people who he had befriended around common passions and through his insurgent sense of humor, Alex began to offer rooms in his house to former students and veterans of the Soviet tours who had no other plans or just preferred the idea of trashing their plans to move in with “Herr Professor Lipson” to see what might happen. As a force for attracting participation, Alex had a native ability to generate the sense that something entertaining and exciting and maybe a bit dangerous was about to happen. So the house became filled with these colleagues, protégés and fellow travelers, all paying rent and completing the essential household chores needed to keep the place from falling into a state of decay and filth. This effort met with mixed success. There were occasional evening seminars on language, but these receded as the interests of the householders diverged.

In the beginning the atmosphere really was an extension of the Soviet tours and the academic hallway discussions about linguistics, language, travel, politics and history that were so familiar to Alex and many of the first tenants from his days at Harvard, MIT, and Cornell. And in many ways that “debating society” culture never completely left the house while the Lipsons owned it. There were also early efforts to run the house as an intentional community (in modern parlance) with shared meals and weekly excursions to the open air market in Boston for produce. This led to comically bureaucratic procedures for recording the fact that you ate a banana and should be charged for it when accounts are settled. As a 5-year old I was in no way exempt from this system. I did benefit in many ways from the early communal spirit of the house, given that Alex, my father, was often not around or not in attendance as I grazed for food or tried to cook my own meals. If it wasn’t for the kindness and generosity of so many tenants I would have gone hungry or resorted to stealing other peoples’ leftover food out of the fridge. As it was I did get fed by good souls, but also learned quickly how to prepare simple cooked foods like fried eggs and hamburgers. I am told by one old friend and early tenant that he once walked into the kitchen to find me, at 6 years of age, sitting on the gas stove with my legs splayed open around a frying pan while I watched my eggs cook. I sure don’t remember that instance, but it seems totally consistent with the complete lack of supervision that I and my siblings received in the early, middle and late days of our childhoods (mostly after the divorce, as you might expect).

But the early cohesiveness built around shared interests did not last and those living in the house at the beginning were gradually replaced by people who felt more like tenants and less like colleagues. Of course there were one or two old-timers who stayed on and helped maintain the feeling that the household was an entertaining - if a bit disturbed - extended family. Over time many of the tenants did become close friends with the kids and each other (several marriages can be traced to first encounters at the house), but it was more like a chummy rooming house than a community by that time. One of these first tenants, Samuel Desch, became like a weird uncle or mascot by virtue of his his sheer longevity, his long familiarity with the family (he had been a favorite student of Alex's at Cornell in 1966), and his abiding obliviousness to the changing cast of tenants he shared the house with. Desch was nearly always lumbering around the house, ponderously preparing his revolting recipes, garlic potions, fermented vegetables, cod liver oil and his other ministrations and "cleansing rituals" (colonic, nasal, urinary and other). However it’s told by however many people, eventually, Desch will certainly remain the belching Buddha, like a boulder in the middle of the raging river of so many youthful indiscretions and urgent liberal egos that surrounded Garden Terrace and Cambridge in the 1970s and '80s. So it's hard to tell any important story about the Terrace that does not somehow involve Desch and yet it's difficult to fully capture his spirit and the influence he had on us and on the house over 17 years.

Sam Desch, or "Big Sam" as he was known to my "Little Sam", used to go to Nashville once a year and always came back with a few pecan pies from the kitchen of his Southern auntie. These much-anticipated pies were mouth-watering and seemed to be infused with secret folk knowledge (of course that´s how Desch explained it anyway). To godless Northern children who foraged for themselves and were raised with no apparent discipline or family ritual, these simperingly sweet, gooey treats somehow felt like a quiet demonstration of the basic correctness of Desch's many spiritual dictates about eastern thought, macrobiotics, his completely off-the-wall notions about pyramids kept under beds, or whatever esoteric philosophy he was delving into that month. The pecan pie was just an exhibit in his campaign to demonstrate the immutability of ancient knowledge (in this case ancient knowledge about how to bake a proper pecan pie).

Except for these yearly trips to the South, Desch attended to the regular ceremony and ritual of the late shift at the Terrace with solemn dedication. Generally coming downstairs at around 11pm to begin cooking his atrocities, he would sit in the dining room reeking of garlic, often wearing a self-satisfied (slightly sadistic) grin, to read the Times and watch late night TV until about 4am. His television selections were limited by the 3 or 4 channels that were available back in those days, but he had a weakness for talk shows, comedies and the occasional Solid Gold episode featuring those athletic and lurid dancers. ("Hmmmm. She could crush my skull between her thighs" he would comment lasciviously). When there was nothing to watch his preferred form of entertainment was to bate or antagonize the "Young Moderns" (younger tenants) into a state of outrage over his rhetorical right-wing generalizations that were always meant to demonstrate just how misguided and arrogant were the received wisdoms and liberally correct ideas of the day. He enjoyed perseverating on how these Ivy League jackasses had things "entirely wrong", whether it was the science of weather forecasting (Desch: the power of the storm itself is literally sucked dry by this media hype around the next big blizzard and has nothing to do with Doppler radar or satellite images) or our interventionist policies in Central America (Desch: they should just shoot all the little brown people to restore order. Everyone will be better off for it). I'm certain that I have failed to convey how these statements were intended to question and provoke, rather than to promote superstition and hatred. Desch took a narrowly Socratic approach to engaging the Young Moderns and was, I am nearly certain, a closet bleeding-heart himself. In the service of his argument or spiritual tenet he could never reveal this weakness, of course.

Young Modern was a favorite term he bestowed upon the naive and earnest 20-somethings who shared the house with us. It had many neatly folded implications that included (but were not limited to) reflexively liberal, faddish, mentally undisciplined, ignorant of Latin and Greek conjugation, and pleasure-seeking without a deep and studied spiritual intent. It was his summary judgment and reminder to us kids that our generation lacked humility and respect for ancient wisdom. After he had exhausted the possibilities for amusement he would retire to his attic room, just before the first light of day, to read and translate technical articles from Russian, German or French (his only apparent source of income).

In the final tally we lived with more than 150 people at Garden Terrace over 17 years, 1968-1986. Our family owned, operated and resided in this rooming house, though all six Lipsons never did live there at one time as far as I can recall. I probably lived there longer than any of the family members, except Desch (the Seventh Member of the band). We had every sort of chap and lassie living there over the years. Brilliant young Harvard students from earnest Midwestern families, mentally unstable artists from Europe, engineers, inventors, the petulant children of ruling-class African families, perverted Rolfists, nebbishy self-declared psychics and Wiccans from Long Island, suicidal trust-fund kids, speed freak-musicologists, skinhead-aesthetes, and comely twin Christian Scientist girls from Belmont. Hell, we had Abbie Hoffman’s family living in our basement while he was on the lam in the mid-1970s (he would call from time to time). Other tenants had biographical details that were of questionable veracity, like the fellow who claimed he worked for the CIA (not that unusual a claim in Cambridge in the '70s) and then, one day, received a letter from the federal government and left the house without warning. We had to have a tenant physically removed by the police after suffering a psychotic collapse. Our father Alex passed away from kidney cancer when I was 16 and none of us was older than 23. For the last seven years the Terrace continued to be managed as a boarding house by the kids, in various combinations, until it was sold. Through the years of tumult there was no shortage of drama, but also no tolerance for pity or judgment from outside. It was a hellacious ride, no doubt, and a bountiful education that (it often seems in retrospect) we barely survived intact.

So let’s hear the stories people have to tell from their tenure at Garden Terrace. For me and my family it is the place of our myth, if that's not too strong a word. But it was also a public society that spilled out into Harvard Square and the Pilot School and Harvard and MIT and Cambridge and received visitors in a continuous stream from the world at large. And of course it was the place where we Lipson kids tried to conduct our personal affairs and adolescent experiments, to run a household, to get through school, and still have a good time all the time.

We've lost touch with so many former tenants over the years and we lost Desch to cancer in August 2006. It would be terrific to hear what people remember about their days with and the Lipsons in that unkempt, overgrown, brown-shingle castle back in the 02138. So, tell ‘em if you got ‘em.

Please e-mail me anything you want to post and I'll put it up. I'd also be happy to give posting privileges to anyone who's interested.



nate said...

Just a test, to how comments are registered with the current blog configuation.


Gantt said...

a lovely, funny, touching description

I was not there often enough, but it all rings very true and takes me right back

hanns39 said...

In was there quite often. Sam, was my nest friend at the time and he led a free wheeling life, as a child that I envied.
I would often spend the night there and then we would take our bikes and have some amazing adventures in Cambridge.
As I lived at 102 Trowbridge st. we were close enough to each other's place that we could easily ride our bikes through Harvard Square, or Cambridge Common, each way.
I have so many memories, I don't have time here to write them all!
Needless to say, it was amagical time in our lives, when magical thinking was possible, to a 9 and 7 year old.

Anonymous said...

DESTER - DESCH- DEXTER...what's the difference?
Not much.
GREED ARK for a kill in PROFFETTS and RIZAFF and EF and FF and pretending you have HATEFACE when you are merely twisted and want vengeance.
On the child you used to be.
And perhaps the child that was used and had no help to fight back and you hate yourself for letting it happen over and over again.
Or perhaps you were born to be a prick like RICK.
Speak up and teach the world and stop the death of our
planet and the torture against innocent victims that perhaps you once were and ought not have been at all, but there
was no understanding and that's what there has to be right
For real peace and honor and progression .

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.