Mel Pollner wave line
A second service in memory of Melvin Pollner was held on Sunday, March 9, 2008 from 2-4 pm in the Sequoia Room at the UCLA Faculty Center.

Jerry Krakowski

I met Mel when he was commuting to UCLA on a weekly basis from Santa Barbara. It wasn’t clear to me then why he was driving his impressive Maserati. Like everyone else upon first meeting him felt at ease and taken by his friendliness and charm.

As a graduate student at UCLA in the 60’s I was extremely excited by the stimulating atmosphere. This was a time when the Viet Nam war was being protested by the Free Speech Movement (I had been a member and organizer of protest events on campus), and a time when there were ground-breaking advances in redefining the foundations upon which sociological inquiry could/should be conducted. Garfinkel was a pioneer with his ethnomethodology and Sacks was developing the radical discipline of Conversation Analysis. Mel was part of that intellectual evolution. Once could see Lou Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jamar -- the basketball legend) walking on campus and Carlos Castaneda could be found meandering through Haines Hall.

If there were a singular moment that stands out in my mind when I think of Mel, it is the “boat story.” I had been living on a boat for a few years that was no larger than the biggest of station wagons. It was so small that it was not possible to stand up. I would sit on a cushion on one side of the cabin and from that position I could easily reach the hot plate, the refrigerator, and within arms distance work the T.V. (there were no remotes at that time). After a while Mel became a faculty member and I was a perpetual grad student. I would frequently pop into his office. I told him my reflections about how life on my boat was not that different from life in an apartment or home. I was defensive about my living arrangement. I argued that things were not as bad as they might otherwise seem. I reasoned that over the course of time spent at home, individuals primarily sit. For years Mel would recall my “boat story” and it was always accompanied by a broad grin and good-natured laughter. Only in hindsight did I even consider that each repetition was a form of ridicule. With that realization I should have taken offense but I didn’t because I never perceived anything pejorative. Last night (the night before the memorial service) it struck me that his use of humor played a very special role in Mel’s life. Humor was not merely his means of inserting levity in any and every situation, but it was a means by which he achieved an ambiance of closeness. More precisely, humor was a means by which he exercised a form of intimacy. His humor seduced those coming in contact with him to feel close to him. I’m sure he didn’t always know what to make of me, but he sure had fun poking fun at my “boat story.” I’m glad he did.

One way of characterizing a central theme that was ever present in Mel’s academic interests and quite probably his outlook on life is that he stood on the fence between reality and X (Unreality? Alternate reality?). He was forever pointing to the inescapable and ubiquitous nature of that dichotomy and it served as a major theme in most of his thinking and writing. He may not always have been clear just where he stood on that fence and which way he was leaning at any point in time. Manny of my discussions with him centered around how the world would appear from either side of the fence. Harvey Sacks once made the observation that if readers would spend anything like the time it took to put a piece of writing on paper reading some particular work, it would make for a deepened appreciation of that work. He then suggested that as an exercise one should read the first paragraph, then a second paragraph, then reread the first two paragraphs before proceeding to the third, and so forth. Jorge Louis Borges and Herman Hesse were very popular among students in the late sixties. The theme throughout Borges’ work was to juxtapose alternate realities and Hesse was just the Jungian influenced Hesse. I applied Harvey’s technique to Borges’ “Personal Anthology” and Hesse’s “Steppenwolf.” This exercise stimulated ideas that resembled a classical “trip.” I remember on several occasions going to Mel’s office and excitedly relating my latest “findings” in how their writings were suggestive of the feasibility of the existence of an “unreality.” He would patiently listen (smiling all the while) and then made comments that took my “trip” to a higher level. I think that for Mel, any and all ideas were equally eligible for him to apply his manipulation that would extend any topic to new magical heights and do with laughter. Maybe that is the way he would only relate to me, but I doubt it. I once saw him lecture and I recall that when he presented one of his “trippy” ideas they too were accompanied with a smile and with laughter. In such a world there was hardly any room to be negative or critical. Speaking with him was not only interesting, it was always exciting.

I had learned of his illness through my friend, Alan Ryave, who indirectly had heard the news from Anita Pomerantz. We were all part of a small circle of friends as grad students at UCLA. Immediately after I heard the news I emailed Mel asking if he remembered me -- not knowing his state of debilitation. I wrote a few recollections not unlike those I present here. He sent me a warm reply that assured me that his mental faculties were perfectly in tact. He asked permission to forward my email to both his children – he didn’t wait for the permission, he had already forwarded the message. I suppose I struck a nerve. In our exchanges we arranged to make phone contact. We made several plans to meet for coffee. We even had some fun noting that we would do so even though neither of us drank coffee. Regretfully his illness prevented him from sticking to any of our plans to make face-to-face contact. In one conversation I mentioned that I had problems with my stomach and this immediately raised a red flag. He felt that the treatments he was undergoing made him particularly vulnerable to catching any “bug.”

I am glad that we had the chance to speak by phone. At the outset of each conversation he apologized that he could only talk for a few minutes. Typical of our mutual personalities, each call lasted at least half an hour. They were good conversations. He explained the nature of his fight with cancer. We talked about sociology, the sociology department, and changes that took place in our personal lives. The talks were smooth and comfortable as if our communication was not interrupted by almost a thirty-year hiatus.

One specific exchange haunts me. He made a comment about my description of my current interest in a novel approach to psychotherapy. I explained that what I do in therapy mirrors the perspective of my interest in Conversation Analysis. He said : “I’m glad to see you put to use that background in a practical way to help others.” It was amazing! He spoke those words with a tone that resembled something that might have been uttered by a Rabbi. He was offering his blessing. Who knows. It isn’t important to analyze such comments in any great depth or to reach any final or definitive interpretations. Maybe by conveying my impression of that conversation I’m just imaginatively continuing a conversation I would have had about this with Mel. The bottom line is, at the risk of my sounding like a Rabbi: He touched us in wonderful ways that we cannot explain.