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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

On Being an Autodidact: Memoirs of an Effete Impudent Snob

Updated: May 25

Pearl Bowser, my friend Jora's mother, who lived on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn, had a bulletin board in her kitchen completely filled with political buttons, relics and badges from her years of activism: campaign slogans, radical lefty candidates, peace protests. One of the buttons stated " I AM AN EFFETE IMPUDENT SNOB."

Apparently that was a title coined by one of Spiro Agnew's speech writers in 1969 to belittle student anti-war protestors and young intellectuals in general. It certainly was a catchy phrase, and I adopted it, at least in my own mind, as an ironic badge of honor, which I still wear proudly if a trifle cynically.

When I graduated from High school in 1975 at the end of my junior year, at the head of my class, I did not go on to college despite the placid expectations of all who knew me, or thought they knew me. Saving myself the trouble and expense [although there would have been no personal expense, monetarily at least, since I had won scholarships and was eligible for free tuition due to my father's being a university professor] of going to college and then cynically dropping out, I even more cynically never went at all until several decades had passed. Instead I launched myself out into the world, or my very cloistered and enchanted version of what the world was, completely unsupervised. Escaping without meaning to the drug and sex crazed excesses of college dorm life in the late seventies, I ended up in a life of relative monastic simplicity- farm hand on a marijuana plantation, keeper of seaboots and lifejackets at a survival school on an island off the Maine coast, crew member on a giant sailboat plying the waters of New York Harbor. Serial monogamy, the serenity of nature, the communal life style of focsle and subsistence farm, the insistent lessons of weather and tide, and the stark consequences of living in poverty- these were my teachers, along with the books which had carried me through childhood.

I was not at all sure what I wanted to do with my life. I was called to do so many things, and told I could do anything, which was a far from helpful piece of advice. Three things I could recite to myself that I knew were important were the following mantric : poems, and babies, and saving the world. Of these, having babies was what I was most certain of and most able to accomplish when the time came. I had enjoyed being a child so much, I wanted to be a mother and give that joyful experience to other young beings. I had said [to myself] that "one" should start having children between the ages of 24 and 26. After that I figured one would have less energy and also might forget what it was like to be a child, and hence be less able to empathize with and thus raise them. So, consulting my biological wristwatch at age 26 [I did put the whole thing off until the far end of the parameters], I beckoned to my partner and announced that it was time to start a family [up until this time, fear of pregnancy and multiple scares, sometimes warranted, that I might be pregnant, had punctuated my tranquility from time to time]. Luckily for me, he did not balk at this project, despite the fact that we had been living a blissfully free life with few responsibilities, mainly sailing a rowboat around Europe and up and down the east coast of the US. He liked children. He already had a daughter so knew, more than I, the extent to which parenthood dominates ones existence, but we carried on regardless, so to speak. The fact that I had no obvious way of making a living, although my partner did [ as a skilled carpenter] did not once enter into my formula for analyzing the feasibility of having kids.

Thus followed the decade of the child, which expanded into several decades and will last, I hope, for my whole lifetime.

I figured out as an adolescent that I was beautiful, but I would always just tell myself that "the world is full of beautiful people, and you are just one of them." I was raised by a tomboy, a western woman, a lesbian as a matter of fact. She did not coach me in the feminine wiles but provided a robust role model as someone who could split wood with an axe, butcher a deer and repair simple machines. I remember as a four year old getting a set of paper dolls depicting a bride and wedding party and asking her what these costumed figures were all about. She gave a lightly sardonic laugh and said that it was a bride and bridesmaids, and words to the effect that such events were highly overrated. This was a teachable moment and I have never sought marriage nor, to the date of writing this, have I ever been married. Living with a succession of men, one of them for 33 years, yes. But never legally married. A further reinforcement of this was from a woman I met in a Greyhound bus station somewhere in the midwest, while I was running away from home to live with an older man of 19; she told me "live with them, but don't marry them" when she heard I was traveling to join a boyfriend. My father, in giving me a bit of parental wisdom which I scoffed at a the time, put it another way. "Sarah, if you do have sex with young men, they will fall in love with you," he cautioned, more to warn me to please not break their hearts than anything else I think. And of course I wouldn't want to break their hearts or hurt them in any way but I thought that his estimation of my powers was absurd, and went on my merry way.

During high school as a teen, my parents were hippies. Effete, impudent ones but hippies nonetheless. Both born and raised in the Berkeley Bay area, on the fragrant slopes of Mt. Olympus aka the Berkeley Hills, they had eschewed the tame familiarity of their sleepy hometown and migrated east, a reverse migration to the Big Apple to seek their fortunes as artists. When we moved east I was about four years old. By the time the seventies rolled around we had retreated to a remote upstate college campus where my Dad taught sculpture and design and my Mom was becoming a visual artist, photographer, printmaker. They took a passing interest in all things Native American, and I was hooked on all that stuff too as many Americans are- craving to be native, authentic, not one of the conquering despoilers. I knew I could not possibly claim a drop of "Indian blood" but dreamed of being adopted into a Tribe and read the literature on the subject hungrily. When the Wounded Knee occupation came along the news wires, I was enthralled.

At some point my Dad and I embarked on a project to build a tipi and spent hours in the woods selecting young trees, felling them, and dragging them home to be stripped of bark and branches. As a high school graduation gift, I received a canvas tipi cover and accoutrements sewn by an outfit in California, Tipi Makers. I lived in the graceful little tent from time to time, sometimes with lovers, children, a cat, a small woodstove. I used to set it up at the Clearwater festival once a year until the cover became too old and weather rotted and finally ripped to shreds. The guide book "The Indian Tipi" describes tipi living and culture as remembered by the original occupants, and states that the tipis were the women's property and domain, and that in order to divorce a husband all a woman had to do was throw all his things out of the tipi. This tactic ended up being used on me when my long term relationship with my children's father came to an end and he first put all the things he considered mine out on the porch, and then drove them to a nearby storage unit which he rented and had the bill sent to me.

I finally started attending college at age 35, and graduated with an RN license at age 40. That license has been my meal ticket ever since.

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