Mel Pollner Eulogies
Mel Pollner

November 17, 2007
Steve Clayman

Mel Pollner's passing has affected me deeply. He was densely woven into the fabric of my everyday life at UCLA for nearly 20 years.

Sheer propinquity played a role in this, at least initially. When I arrived at UCLA in the late 1980s, I was given the office directly across the hall from Mel's office in Haines Hall. Since our respective desks faced the common hallway, we could actually see each other when our doors were open, and even when the doors were closed we would bump into each other regularly and often.

This was a great place for a young assistant professor to be. Mel was remarkably warm, supportive, and generous with his time. He had a breadth of knowledge and a powerfully creative mind. And he tended to view the world from a distinctively off-kilter vantage point that was refreshing, intellectually stimulating, and at times subversive. This latter sensibility was so thoroughly a part of his nature that it conditioned both his professional writings and his informal encounters with others.

In this connection, many have commented on Mel's "sense of humor," although I don't think that rather generic term captures what was special about him. "Playfulness" comes closer to the mark; Mel was unusually and delightfully playful. Just about any subject could become, in his hands, an occasion for extended conversational play and often wild flights of fancy.

For instance, he and I used to engage in form of wordplay that I came to think of as "the cliché game." Describing the cliché game is as risky as explaining a joke, but suffice it to say that the objective is to have a coherent conversation consisting entirely of clichés and idiomatic expressions. Originality is expressly forbidden. Here is a reconstructed sample:

Mel:       How ya doin', kiddo.
Steve:   Couldn't be better.
Mel:      Sittin' pretty?
Steve:  Truth be told, I'm on easy street.
Mel:     On the sunny side?
Steve:  You've hit the nail on the head.
Mel:     But to a child with a hammer, the whole world is a nail.
Steve:  Still, I'd rather be a hammer than a nail.
Mel:     If those are our choices, we're between a rock and a hard place.
Steve:  They've got us coming and going.
Mel:      It's like we can't win for losing.

And so on. Mel loved this game for the sheer joy of wordplay, but I think it also appealed to his fondness for constructed realities and altered states of consciousness. As the game would unfold, something strange would start to happen - everything would start sounding cliché, including expressions of exhaustion with the game itself. And at that point, Mel would steadfastly refuse to break frame, treating my every effort to end the game as a further move within it:

Steve:  I'm running out of ideas.
Mel:      Scraping the bottom of the barrel?
Steve:   No seriously.
Mel:      All kidding aside.
Steve:   I really should get back to work.
Mel:      Shoulder to the wheel, nose the grindstone.

I haven't tried to represent the slightly giddy laugher that would punctuate Mel's lines at this juncture. I can now say from experience that very few people on earth are either willing or able to play the cliché game, but Mel was an enthusiastic and gifted participant.

Then there were the wild conversational threads, where some initial observation would set Mel off on one of his magical mystery tours. Once, while driving to campus, I remember hearing an NPR story about a bona fide research study (published in the Annals of Improbable Research, May/June 2003) demonstrating that the state of Kansas is indeed flatter than a pancake. Some tongue-in-cheek geographer had used a statistic known as the "flattening ratio," applied to topographical data as well as an ordinary pancake from the neighborhood diner, to arrive at this earth-shattering discovery.

As soon as I heard this, I knew I had to relay it to Mel. True to form, he took the ball and ran with it, imagining an entire research program devoted to subjecting common sense aphorisms to absurdly complicated scientific tests. The one that sticks in my mind involved an experimental test of FDR's assertion that "there is nothing to fear but fear itself." I don't remember all the details, but the study included a subject population, random assignment to experimental and control groups, pre- and post-tests of physical and psychological health – and grizzly bears.

So it's no wonder that I just loved hanging out in Mel's office. I was drawn to him, as I know others were as well, in part because he was so much fun and because it felt good to be in his presence. But his special magnetism ran deeper than that. Mel's openness and natural empathy also made him a wonderful listener and confidant. I returned the favor whenever I was called upon to do so, but it's fair to say that I was the beneficiary of his generous ear much more frequently than the reverse. Indeed, I had to restrain myself from knocking on his door too often, or staying in his office too long. After all, I'd tell myself, the man has to work sometimes!

This frequency of contact waned somewhat when Haines Hall was vacated for earthquake retrofitting and our offices were subsequently re-shuffled. No longer in close proximity, Mel and I stopped bumping into each other "naturally," and getting together became something that required planning and effort. Nevertheless, he remained someone whose company I relished and whose understanding and advice I continued to seek at difficult and troubling moments. I will forever miss having Mel to confide in, and to play with.