The Beginning: 1971-1977

As promised I am continuing to write a series of autobiographical posts which I am planning to use as the basis for a memoir. A lot of this stuff is really jumbled in my memory. I have done some research online and talked to family members about a lot of this but even so the series of events is not entirely clear. This early period is especially hard since we know that nobody has memories from the first three years of their lives and to make matters worse I have very few pictures from back then. Most of what I am talking about here I have heard in story form from one family member or another but as usual take it all with a grain of salt.

momanddadkissing

My mother and father sometime around 1969

My parents met in High School and ended up dropping out and eloping (yes there are words that start with ‘e’ that don’t have anything to do with the internet). It was a different world back then and I gather that neither of the parents thought much of their proposed son/daughter-in-law. I think that was in 1968 or somewhere thereabouts. My mom was an artist (she still is) who had been winning art competitions and my father was a musician and interested in claymation. I have never heard any of his music (that I know of) but I am told that he was pretty good and wrote a lot of music as well.

One of my mom’s drawing won a contest and was featured in a calendar put out for he next year (1969, I think). Sadly, she never got to see the calendar because it was sent to her mother’s house and she had eloped by then. I have tried to find a digitized version of the calendar but haven’t been able to so far.  Her parents did not encourage her artistic endeavors, but that is perhaps another story. Both of my parents were vegetarian at the time and decided to raise their kids vegetarian.

I am told that my father was drafted into the army and was scheduled to be sent to Vietnam. During his physical he told them he had asthma and they said he seemed fine. This was before I was born but I don’t know what year. My mom tells me that he packed and was ready to ship out, they even had a tearful goodbye, but when he reported for duty he had a serious asthma attack and was sent home. Discharged that very day. He came back home with his stuff. I haven’t been able to verify this story but if it is even partially true it is pretty amazing. I had uncles who did go to Vietnam and they came back profoundly different people, who wouldn’t after being exposed to the horrors of the Vietnam war? And, of course, many people never came back at all. Had my father actually been sent to Vietnam there is a strong possibility that I would never have been born!

birthpiccropped

Moments after my birth

But I was! I was born in LaMirada California a couple of years later in 1971. My mom tells me that at the time she did not know very much about childbirth and was not given a lot of options. She was given an epidermal and as a result I became stuck in the birth canal. I have found that this is quite common (or used to be anyway). The doctors had to go in with forceps and pull me out by the head. Apparently this was a pretty common procedure but in the process they did some damage to my head. As a result I was puffy and swollen and I did not breathe right away. The doctors warned my mom that this may have some averse effects on my early brain development. Some might suggest that this sure does explain a lot!

Thankfully I don’t remember any of that but I do look rather worse for the wear in my first picture! My mom tells me that when she brought me home from the hospital they did not have a crib or anything and that I used to sleep in one of our dresser drawers.

My sister was born in 1973 when I was 1 and 1/2 years old. By then my mom had learned a bit in her attempt to raise me vegetarian and she had a natural childbirth. I don’t know where we lived at the time but it was somewhere in Los Angeles. Apparently having kids was more than my father bargained for and I am told that he claimed that we were holding back his music career. They were both young, in their early 20s, and had had bad childhoods themselves. Looking back on it all I can see how hard it must have been to have been so young and on your own with 2 kids, having been young and on my own I can’t imagine what it would have been like had there been children when I was their age.

But at any rate my father began began to drink heavily and at some point it got bad enough that my mom decided to leave him. He would get his paycheck and head to the local bar. My mom tells me she would be at home waiting to see if he came home with any money or not. He was also physically abusive. I don’t know when this was but I have narrowed it down to probably sometime in late 1973 or 1974. So I would have been 2 or 3 depending on the timing. I really don’t remember any of this but my mom tells me that my sister and I were terrified when they would fight. The first time she tried to leave him she waited until my father came home one night on payday and was drunk and passed out. His pants were on the floor in the bathroom and she went in and took whatever cash was left over and took my sister and I and took a bus to my grandparents house. They lived up the coast in Pismo Beach, which was part of the Central Coast of California.

meandmom1975 (1)

My mom and I, 1975 or so

They had a place close to downtown Pismo Beach on Price St. This was a lovely place that had an antique store beneath it (which I think my grandfather ran/owned). I have very very vague memories of staying here at that time but none of them are very clear. My mom tells me that at some point my father came down and tried to get her back. When she refused he camped out in the back yard and my grandmother became furious and told us all to leave. We went back to L.A. and ended up staying in a hotel in El Monte.

As I said my sister and I were raised vegetarian and my mom tells me that on our way back to L.A. we stopped at a Salvation Army in Santa Barbara. I have no memory of this but apparently everyone there really liked me and when they were serving food they wanted to be nice to me. They were serving beans with cut up hotdogs in it and to be nice to me they put in an additional whole hotdog into my serving. My mom says she saw this but was afraid to say anything about it because she knew that meant I would not eat it. I was sitting in a high chair and when I saw the hotdog I was very angry. I stabbed it with a fork, climbed up onto my high chair, held the fork over my head, and shouted ‘WE DON’T EAT THIS!’. I feel like I would have flung the hotdog as well, but that may be my imagination.  My mom says that she was embarrassed but secretly her and my dad were very proud. They were taken aside by the person running the food line and told they should teach me about being grateful for what I had. As anyone who has every come into any kind of contact with me knows, this story foreshadows a great deal!

I do not know how long we were back in El Monte, but I think we must have left again in 1976 or 1977. This part of the story is hard to reveal. Apparently I used to play out in the front of the hotel we were staying at (I think this was in El Monte but can’t be sure). I had a Big Wheel that I used to ride around. One day, I am told, I was out there as usual, my father was at work and I do not know where my mom was, inside I assume. Again, I do not really remember this, and in fact did not really remember it had even happened until I was in my twenties and talked to my mom about it, but I am told that at the time I reported that some man had offered me money if I came with him. I did go with him. Apparently he took me to a place where a lot of busses were stored and into one of the parked busses, where he said his wallet was. I went in and he grabbed me from behind and tried to pull my overalls off. I squirmed away and ran home. I came home crying and frightened. The police came and took a report and I was apparently really embarrassed when I had to explain that this guy had tried to grope my genitals. All of this is what my mom told me about what she remembers me telling her on that day. I don’t have any really clear memories of the event so all I can do is report what she has told me. One last chilling detail is that he apparently yelled “I know where you live,” as I ran away and as a result I was pretty paranoid that he would come back for me.

My mom also tells me that soon afterwards I was starting school. She says I did not go to preschool or kindergarten and that she would not let me attend school until the State of California mandated it, so this must have been 1st Grade. I am pretty sure that would mean that I was 6 years old at the time but I haven’t been able to confirm this (I wonder of the police report still exists?)…Either way, apparently right after this I was starting school wherever this happened, which I am assuming was in El Monte but may have been somewhere else in the Los Angeles area, and I was supposed to be taking the school bus. My mom walked me to the bus stop and the bus came to take me to school, my First Day of School! For some reason or other I missed the school bus after school and just sat on the school steps not knowing what to do. My mom was waiting for me at the bus stop after school to walk me home but I did not get off the bus. She became very worried. She thought the abductor had come back and taken me again. Frantic, she went to the school and found me sitting on the steps. I was ok but she was terrified and told my father that we had to move. He apparently responded by saying that I was fine now, and my mom tells me that she knew she had to leave him.

Somehow we ended up staying in a shelter for battered women called Haven House. Probably I was 5 around this time (in 1977 or so then) and I do have some very vague memories of Haven House. They had an Easy Bake Oven that I liked to bake with, for example. At some point we got our own place in Pasadena, though I really do not remember it at all. Maybe it was on Paso Robles St.?

Apparently the place we were staying at was pretty seedy and downstairs in the corner apartment a pimp lived with a bunch of girls that he ran. My mom says he was really nice to her, and was very cultured and she became friendly with a couple of his girls. They told her that she could make a lot of money if she became a prostitute. My mom has told me, now that she is getting on in age, that she is proud that she resisted that offer. She was at a low point, by herself with two kids, with a low paying job. At any rate she turned down the offer and the pimp respected her for that. One thing that I do sort of remember is that some guy was coming over to the pimps place and pointed to my mom, who was talking with one of the prostitutes, and asked ‘how much for her?’ to which the pimp responded with a right hook that sent the guy tumbling backwards. He stumbled and fell over the railing on the porch and into the bushes. At the time I had no idea what was going on. I had vaguely remembered living in Pasadena and the nice black man who lived downstairs who I would sometimes hang out with during the day. When I found out that he was a pimp and the women I knew were prostitutes I was a bit surprised!

Anyway, my mom says she was at that point still hanging around Haven House and through them she got the opportunity to go on the Merv Griffin Show. The show was on battered women and they had come to Haven House to ask if there was anyone there who might be good for the show. The recommended my mom.

meandmom1977 (1)

December 1977

The show was filmed December 15th 1977, when I would have been 6 and my sister was 4. My mom tells me that the only reason she agreed to do it was to get some extra money so that she could buy Christmas presents for my sister and I but that she did not get the money until after Christmas. The show was hosted by William C. Rader, who I had never heard of until I starting researching the show, but apparently he was a psychiatrist on tv a lot back then. They had my mom, a woman who had killed her husband, and a man who used to beat his wife. I contacted the holder of the footage and they say they have footage of that show still but I haven’t been able to get ahold of it. It would be really interesting to see it!

My aunt had come down to be in the audience of the show with my sister and I and she talked my mom into coming back down to the central coast to be involved with a catering truck business that they had started down there. And so we moved back to the central coast. I don’t know exactly when this was but according to my mom we were staying with my grandparents when they saw the episode of the Merv Griffen show air. My mom said on the show that her husband was an alcoholic just like her own father (my grandfather) and this made my grandmother very angry. In fact she was so mad that she kicked all of us out. Somehow my mom met a man who had an apartment for rent and since he liked her he gave her a deal on the place and we moved into it. That must have been 1978 or so and I would have been 6 or 7 depending on the exact timing.

So, even though I was born in Los Angeles I really identify the Central Coast of California as where I am from. My earliest clear memories are from living there in the famous 5 Cities….but I’ll get to that next month.

January-March 1997

I have been meaning to start to write some autobiographical posts and, maybe it has something to do with being trapped inside during this snowstorm, maybe something else, but I started thinking about my first semester at San Francisco State University.

It was 20 years ago, way back in January of 1997, and I was living and working at a mortuary and crematorium slash chapel and funeral home while I was also attending community college at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. I had started Cuesta College in August of 1994 and had gone from hitchhiking to school everyday while working here and there to driving my Nisan Pulsar to school every day while living and working at the mortuary. I found out about this place through a person I met at school and thought it was a good chance to live rent free while making some money. Boy was I wrong! I had lived at the mortuary for at least a year, though to be honest I cannot remember how long I lived there, or how many bodies I came into contact with. There are some memorable ones, and the rest is a bit of a blur. That was a dramatic time and at some point I will try to write something about my time in the mortuary, but even though it has now been over 20 years it still haunts me and I don’t think I’m ready to relive that time.

At any rate in January of 1997 my time at the mortuary, at Cuesta, and indeed in the Central Coast of California, were drawing to an end. I was getting ready to move to San Francisco to attend San Francisco State University, where I had been accepted as a transfer student. I’ll get to that but first I had to deal with an old court case that had unexpectedly threatened to hold me back. A while back when I had first started at Cuesta I had been in a fight with someone who had gone on to press charges against me. I did not realize this until I was pulled over for an unrelated incident and found out that there was a warrant for my arrest. To make a somewhat long story short I had hit someone in the head with a 40 ounce bottle of Old English. The judge in the case was worried about the nature of the incident. The use of the bottle made him want to convict me of assault with a deadly weapon. They told me that I could make a plea to aggravated assault and that if I did not take the deal it could go to trial and I would face worse; up to five years in jail. I was familiar with this routine from my time in Juvy and stood my ground. I must have gone to court three times before the judge gave me community service for disturbing the peace. It was a very odd feeling to be literally on the verge of moving to pursue a college degree and then facing the possibility of being dragged back into my old patterns of activities and ending up arrested and in jail, this time as an adult. It was very frightening but it also served to remind me why I was going to school. I did not want to be that kind of person anymore and I had seen a glimpse of the kind of person that I could become. After completing my community service me and the guys at the Mortuary took one last snow boarding trip. It was the day of Super Bowl 31, Sunday January 26th 1997 and we had the mountain all to ourselves. Classes were set to begin Wednesday January 29th and my plan was to put my stuff into storage and drive up the day before classes started. I thought I could stay in a hotel for a week or so while looking for a place to live. I had not pre-arranged any place but I thought it shouldn’t be too much of a problem. Boy was I wrong!

sfstate1st (1)

My first student ID at SF State

My first semester I was taking five classes, which I had registered for already. I had been to SF a few times in recent years to see bands (like P-Funk, Luna, and Free Tibet concerts) and for Jerry Garcia’s memorial in Golden Gate Park (it’s a long story!). The only time I went to SF specifically because of SFSU was to go to the orientation which must have taken place in late 1996. At any rate my first semester had a nice mix of class. I was taking a second year english course (we read a lot of short stories and some Shakespear), a physics class on Space, Time, the Universe, and Relativity, a linguistics course introducing one to the study of language, a philosophical analysis course, and a philosophy of language class taught by Kent Bach. This was a very heavy load and I had a lot going on. It was harder having a car in San Francisco than I thought and I ended up staying in a residential hotel located in the Tenderloin district, which was pretty far away from the SFSU campus. This was a pretty seedy place where there was one bathroom located on the floor that was shared by all of the tenets and where you could find used condoms in the hallway. Classy all the way. Parking around SFSU was tough and so I started taking public transportation and leaving my car. Especially after it stopped starting. It was eventually towed and I found out it would cost more to get it back than it actually cost to purchase it. So I let it go.

Those early weeks were tough. I was there all alone in the city and thrown head over heels into very deep philosophical waters. I remember one night sitting in my residential hotel reading Austin on performative utterances and feeling like I was in way over my head. The philosophy of language class was a mixed seminar that combined an undergraduate class along with a graduate seminar in the same room. I did not realize this at first. Anyway, as I was reading Austin, the distinction between locutionary act, what is said, and illocutionary act, what speech act is performed, seemed clear to me. However, I could not understand what the perlocutionary act was supposed to be. In particular I remember reading the example given over and over. It was ‘don’t do that’ or something, and it was offered as an example of someone protesting against doing the thing in question. The perlocutionary act was listed as ‘he pulled me up, checked me’ and I had no idea what this meant. Looking back on it now it seems like this was an example of the way in which the language used was just not familiar to me. Another example was from Russell’s paper On Denoting. He tells the story about George IV inquiring whether Scott was the author of Waverley. At the time this made no sense to me, though I think I understood the point being made. Years later I learned the whole story (in a class with Nathan Salmon) and then I realized it is a good example!

I eventually ran out of my financial aid money and so could not afford to stay in the residential hotel. The housing market in SF in the late 90s was very tough. I didn’t know it at the time but people were asking professors if they would let students stay with them! I was out looking for a place every chance I got but I also had a lot of work to do for school and I found it easy to get lost in what I was learning. Once I ran out of money and had my car towed I did not know what to do. The semester was not even half way over and I had no where to live and no money. I took to hanging around on campus and staying in the library. They had a 24 hour study area and computer lab and people slept there occasionally. One night I hid in the library until they locked it down just to get a few hours sleep straight. I remember one day, after about three or four days of this, a fellow student in my english lit class approached me and asked if I knew where to get any heroin. I said I didn’t and did not use the stuff. They replied that they could tell when someone was strung out by the dark circles under their eyes. I laughed and said that was because I was living in the 24 hour study section of the library!

I had no food and no money for food but I found out I could get a voucher to help with lunch and I applied for a couple of those. Once those ran out I took to ordering food and standing in line to pay for it but since it was so busy it was easy to slip out of line and just start eating. That worked a couple of times until one of the cooks one day came over to me and said that he had seen what I had done and that he would let it go this time but next time he wouldn’t. I knew I couldn’t pull that stunt again. I forget exactly how it happened but somehow I found out about the dormitories on campus, and especially the residential food hall. I went to inquire about the possibility of getting into the dorms but they said they were full. It was, after all, halfway through the semester! I was bummed but I scoped out the food hall and discovered that there was a back entrance that went in through the kitchen and into the dining hall. I went in desperate and hungry. People were working but no one payed any attention to me. I walked cautiously through the kitchen into the dining hall, grabbed a tray and just stood for a second admiring all of the food. It was basically exactly like a Sizzler all you can eat buffet. It was then that I first heard the Spice Girls song ‘if you wanna be my lover’. It was played on a loop on a TV they had in there.

I soon found out that they had an opening in one of the dorm rooms but that I could not move in until after Spring Break. That was great news! All I had to do was to hang in until then. I decided I would head back to San Luis Obispo and crash with friends during spring break. I could come back to SF afterwards and be in the dorms. I did not want to stay in the mortuary so I ended up staying with an old friend that played in a band with one of my band mates from the past. We played Resident Evil and took it easy and it was nice being back. I was planning on taking the bus from San Luis to SF but the bus made a pit stop somewhere along the 101 and I got out to use the bathroom. I must have been in there too long because when I came out the bus had left. My backpack was on the bus with my books for the semester. I figured I would have to hitchhike back to SF but somehow ended up hitchhiking back to San Luis.

While I was in San Luis I found out that all of my stuff which I had put into storage had been sold. They told me that they had tried to contact me and when they couldn’t they auctioned off the stuff they could and trashed the rest. I couldn’t really blame them, I had signed something saying this would happen and I had been hard to contact being homeless and all. This included not only all of my clothes, my photo albums, music collection, personal keepsakes, artwork from my mother, and furniture but also my drum set and all of my books from my time at Cuesta College. At first I was really depressed. I ended up staying there for another week, thereby missing a week of classes, and I did seriously think about not going back. But I did. They even had my books for the semester and backpack at the Greyhound bus station in SF! Not bad.

So there I was, 25 years old and living in a dormitory with a bunch of people who had already known each other for half of the semester. To make matters worse I soon found out that the reason there had suddenly been a room available was because no one wanted to be roommates with Doug (not his/her real name). Doug had apparently been the major source for a school newspaper article on campus drug use. He had named names and there had been a crackdown as a result. Needless to say he was not liked in the residential hall. For my own part I was surprised by how much like living in a group home and being in juvenile hall this experience was.

I finished the semester and did pretty well. Even more surprisingly I can see now that I learned a lot during that semester and that some of the ideas I had stuck with me and ended up becoming part of later projects (see the preface to my dissertation for more on this). The summer of 1997 was pretty memorable as well. Hopefully I’ll get to that next time!

Remembering Dr. John J. Glanville

I recently was saddened to discover that a former professor of mine, John J. Glanville at SF State University, passed away. Dr. Glanville, as I knew him (he referred to me a Mr. Brown, saying he would call me ‘Richard’ after I had earned my M.A.), was one of those professors who you either loved or hated. He had very high standards and was not squeamish about hurting one’s feelings if he thought one’s answers/work was sub-par. I was one of the one’s that loved him (I took 5 class with him, where I learned everything I know about Ancient Philosophy. He would often remark that for someone with my modern interests I gave “unusual attention to the history of Ancient and Medieval philosophy”) so I thought I would take a couple of minutes to reflect on his influence on me.

I transfered to SF State as an undergraduate in the Spring of 1997. Coming from a community college, I was very excited to be at a four-year school and to be taking classes in my major. In the Fall of 1997 I took Ancient Philosophy and History of Christian Thought, both with Dr. Glanville. Dr. Glanville was a very intimidating figure in the classroom, always asking questions about the readings and chastising those who did not know the answers. But he was also a teacher who took his job seriously and I have never had so much feedback on papers and exams as I did from him. I would turn in 10 double-spaced pages and get back the same 10 pages with copious notes in the margin and between the lines full of challenges, comments, queries, encouragement, etc. All written in tiny print and in pencil. He once famously wrote on one of my classmate’s papers (who shall remain nameless), “I have stopped reading for fear of what I might find,” a testament to his blunt no-nonsense approach. It was the first time I had ever felt like someone was taking my work seriously. For me it was a tremendous feeling. But beyond this gruff task master exterior lay an intellect and wit that was hard to surpass. He could be quite funny in the class, often making jokes that dated him, and it was obvious that he kept up with the literature, often making a comment about a new book or article on Parmenides or Democritus. As tough as he was on our work, he was twice as hard on his own work. We read a couple of his papers in grad seminars and they were excellent. He would say ‘I’ll send them off when they are better’ and we would be blown away; how could they be better? I surmise that there must be several books worth of material lying around in his house. I hope these come out some day and he is recognized for the tremendous scholar that he was.

I remember one particular incident in the History of Christian Thought class I took with him. I was to give a presentation on the section of Acts (I don’t recall the specific passage) where they discuss an encounter with Greek philosophy. Those who know me know that I am agnostic about the existence of God but I am not, nor have I ever been, agnostic about extant religions. I find that they have been a major force for evil in the history of Human Beings, well, at any rate, the point is that I started that presentation by writing on the board a quote from Neitzsche: “There is only one Christian and he died on the cross”. I then proceeded to criticize the metaphysical and epistemological principles of Christianity, arguing that they lost the argument with the Greek philosophers. I later found out that Dr. Glanville was deeply religious but he did not stop me or show anger of any kind (some annoyance seeped out as I recall ;). Rather, he engaged with the arguments that I was presenting in a serious way, trying to show me that I did not quite have it right, and that some of what I said was apt, etc. Now, as an instructor myself, I can only imagine what his real thoughts must have been!

In spite of all this Dr. Glanville ended up writing me a letter of recommendation when I applied to PhD programs in late 2001. He sent me a copy of the letter with a short handwritten note on it. I still to this day find it to be some of the nicest things ever said about me and one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. I here quote a short bit of the letter,

Brown has a lively imagination which he knows how to apply in the service of philosophy. This put him in sync with the thought experiments found in the Pre-Socratics and the response in kind needed by modern readers to test their hypotheses. I am reminded of Heisenberg’s observation on the challenge to his imagination in arousing his mind to a life of work in theoretical physics –the challenge offered, he says, by his study of the Pre-Socratics on the Gymnasium level of German education. –Just the sort of stimulus so often missing in the education of our American youth.

In my considered judgment Richard Brown will one day make significant contributions in the area of Philosophical Psychology. His record of talks and publications already portend that, as does his MA record with us at SFSU.

Dr. Glanville then hand wrote on the letter “Richard, now you have to live up to it!” (This was the first time he had ever called me ‘Richard’, by the way). I used to joke that my 2006 paper “What is a Brain State?” which was published in the journal Philosophical Psychology had discharged this obligation. I always thought I would run into him at some apa meeting and get to make that joke in person. Sadly I won’t get that opportunity. Nor will I get the opportunity to thank him in person for his belief in me, his patience with my ignorance, his stern criticisms of my sloppiness, and his impact on my life. But I like to think he knows already. I am sure he had that level of impact on countless students. We should all be so lucky.

Rest in Peace Dr Glanville.