The Bryn Mawr Listserve: Talking about Life, the Universe, and Everything
By Martha Bayless '80
As much as the six-week Freshman Composition paper, "Baby" German, and the swimming test formed my College experience, for me the real Bryn Mawr was the quality of the conversation-absorbing, stimulating, often witty-that roved over every kind of subject and often continued deep into the night.
Nearly 30 years later, I still write papers, I still use my German, and sometimes I even swim, but I've found that kind of conversation harder to come by in the larger world. Then I found a place where it does continue-on the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Listserve, an e-mail discussion group.
I signed up for the Listserve as soon as I spotted a tiny announcement in the Alumnae Bulletin six years ago. Since then, my social life has expanded, my knowledge of everything from Finnish music to children's books has grown exponentially, and I've been supported and encouraged through a series of incredible events.
"As long as you write that the Listserve experience is like 17 continuous Back Smoker discussions occurring simultaneously, combined with aspects of group therapy, career counseling and Consumer Reports, you will have gotten the general value of the list close to correct," List member Julie Muney Moore '83 told me. She added, "I don't know how you are going to evoke the camaraderie."
There are some 235 Listers (or, as we sometimes call ourselves, "the few, the loud, the Listerines"). We talk about everything, volubly. Recently we've had discussions about the Yoruba religion, career choices, and the philosophy of bathmats. I love it that someone will ask a question about neurology, or baking soda, or punctuation, and several people will have the answer. We call it the Power of the List: it's a braintrust-in-a-box. We actually do have a rocket scientist. Also political scientists; editors, copyeditors and writers; people who can whip up an exotic six-course meal faster than I can open a can of cream of mushroom soup; lawyers; artists; a vet who is very helpful and patient with the half of the List who are cat-mad; people changing life direction; people living all over the world.
We get to hear about the dating scene in Holland (enviable) and taking a kitten to the vet in Kazakhstan. The List has been with people through divorces, weddings, moves, illnesses, losses, bereavements, adoptions, pregnancies, new jobs, new relationships, and meeting long-lost relatives. (Not everything for the same person-at least, not usually.)
One of the real treats for me has been getting to know Mawrters of different ages, something that rarely happens in one's four years at the "Mawr" itself. It's been especially fascinating to hear about previous eras at Bryn Mawr. Two Listers have recalled the visit Dr. Kinsey paid in the '40s to query the entire student body about their sex lives. Apparently the length of the interview corresponded to the extent of one's experience, leading to fascinated speculation when a student spent an extraordinarily short or an extraordinarily long time in her interview. We've also heard about the visits of Bertrand Russell, who married the professor of freshman English, satirical songs of previous eras, and the chemistry professor who used to smoke while working with ether.
One of the presences of this kind was Eva Leah Milbouer '33, mother of Lister Penny Milbouer '67, who joined the List at the age of 87. Eva told us, for instance, about sharing a dentist with Wallis Warfield Simpson. "She married the Prince of Wales," Eva concluded, "and I married Mike Milbouer." As you might expect, she was extraordinary-as is everyone on the List, even, or especially, the ones who think they're ordinary.
This is not to say that the List is an entirely peaceable kingdom. Occasionally spats break out. Some members have left because they find the conversation trivial. More have left because the volume of posts simply gets too much to handle. And this leads to a cycle: when the List is especially good, people persuade their friends to join, and the volume goes up; whereupon it's too much to handle and a lot of people sign off; whereupon volume drops and the List gets very good; whereupon people persuade their friends to join... We are, after all, just as talkative and opinionated as we were at Bryn Mawr.
The List does seem to comprise people who have jobs where their computers are on all day long, or who work or stay at home. The rest seem to be breathlessly deleting wholesale and struggling to keep up. (It's not uncommon for someone to say, "I was away for a few days-I'm behind 1200 messages!") One Lister suggests setting up a separate e-mail account just for the List. The sheer volume of postings does have an up side. We on the List spend a lot of time with each other: it is often not just an intellectual connection, but an emotional one.
When it rains...
This came home to me during my own extraordinary summer of 2000. I developed a mysterious and disabling medical condition, with dizziness, tremors, and other neurological symptoms. There began an odyssey to innumerable doctors who sent me to other doctors, who varied from telling me it was all in my head to making off-the-cuff diagnoses of terminal illness. I was worried and overwhelmed; I was having trouble working enough to keep my job; I was apprehensive about the future. After some hesitation, I confided my panicky and confused condition to the List. They rallied to my support, wrote long messages, did research and suggested doctors, and kept me going, even laughing, when the symptoms were at their worst. For one period, whenever I would start to go to sleep, my body would erupt into horrible neurological symptoms, and I went without sleeping for six days. In the middle of the night, exhausted, drenched in sweat, and frightened, I would log on to find an outpouring of messages waiting for me, encouraging, consoling, and suggesting avenues of research. The List was absolutely sustaining to me. (Two years later, I still have only the most approximate of diagnoses, but I'm learning to cope with them. Thankfully, I am bending the ears of the List much less often.)
Then, in the midst of all my weird symptoms, I began having a new set of weird symptoms. I was hoping they indicated menopause and not another neurological development, so I paid my gynecologist a visit. She did a few exams and an ultrasound-and there on the screen was my latest Weird Symptom, wiggling. Me, an unmarried, indolent 42-year-old professor with health problems-I was pregnant. I wasn't even sure if this would be good news for my boyfriend. As it turned out, it was.
When the shock had worn off enough to let me type, of course, I talked over the situation with the List.
Once more they were supportive-even in ways I could never have predicted. One summer day, when I was eight months pregnant, Lister Kaye Van Valkenburg '74 drove down from her house in Portland, two hours distant, to take me to lunch. I was looking forward to a nice chat about food and vacations, and as a bonus we were going to my favorite restaurant. We arrived, and as we rounded the comer to our booth, I thought we had been given the wrong table-this one was piled with presents in festive wrapping. I stood staring. As if I were thinking in slow motion, the truth dawned on me: the List was giving me a surprise baby shower. They had sent a bonanza of baby Bryn Mawr T-shirts and books and handmade blankets, with references to jokes and baby stories from the List-even a tiny handknitted sweater with raised owls by master knitter Laura Wright '88. Listers had compiled a book of suggested names for the baby and tips on motherhood, and sent shower games to play. It was all the brainchild of Enid Karr '83, who had sent out a stealth message to the List, and who, as a superb cake decorator, had been only narrowly dissuaded from sending one of her own cakes, all the way from Massachusetts, to the shower.
My boyfriend-by that time he had been transmuted into my husband-arrived. He was a lot quicker on the uptake than I was. He took one look at the piles of wonderful things. "Bryn Mawr List," he said.
The waitress said, "Is she going to cry all the way through lunch?"
When I recounted the whole afternoon to the List, some Listers realized that they had missed the original stealth e-mail, got together and sent me another box of baby things.
This is in addition to boxes of tiny second-hand clothes and children's books from Listers that the mail carrier was lugging up the steps every week.
All these things were of incalculable help to me. List support for my mind-boggling pregnancy didn't end there. I have no living family. My local friends were either childless or getting their kids off to college. I was still baby-clueless. I tried to suppress fantasies of having a sister who knew her way around babies and would come to keep me from floundering. Most astonishing of all, I got one. Lister Lynne Miles-Morillo '87 offered to fly out from Indiana to help me after the birth.
When I tell local friends this, they say, "Did you know her at Bryn Mawr?" "No," I say, "just from the List." "But you had met her before?" "Well," I say, "for about an hour." In fact, I had visited Lynne in Indiana when I was there on vacation once. I knew she made great lemon bars, and I knew she was a kindred spirit. I accepted her offer and was able to offer her a frequent-flier ticket. She even went to my ancestral home in Indiana, gathering a bottle of earth to bring me and the baby. She left two of her brood with her husband and came out with her exuberant 11-month-old. It was immeasurably comforting to have someone there who knew something about babies, and she toted both of them around town indefatigably while my husband and I caught up on sleep. I am her devotee for life.
You would think that the List had already provided me with more good fortune than a person is entitled to in a single lifetime, but in fact there's more.
In the midst of trying to be a professor, keep the prenatal vitamins down, solve or ignore my health problems, start a new and serious married life, and refrain from panicking, I was also trying to keep afloat a side career as a freelance writer. Lister Erin Slonaker '99 is an editor for Quirk Productions, which was looking for someone to write a book about cats. She issued an open invitation to the List, and, in the midst of what I understand was tough competition, I got the contract. I wrote Kitty Kapers in the last months of my pregnancy-the money handily offset the fact that I wasn't paid for maternity leave-and it was published in the summer of 2002.
This is not the only book-connection made by a Lister: Lori Summers '95 has written two books for Quirk Productions, The Dragon Hunter's Handbook and The Ghost Hunter's Handbook. And Lister Wendy Warren Keebler '78 now proofreads for Quirk.
The List has been especially attentive and kind to me because I have had so many stumbling-blocks in my life and chose to share them. I know alumnae whose lives are smoother, or who gripe less than I do, often feel a good deal less connection to the List. At least one other Lister who suffered a series of difficulties has reported the same level of caring. I've tried to respond to the List with equal generosity. I've sent out boxes of yarn, vintage silk handkerchiefs, linoleum cutters, books and get-well presents. I also ghosted a trashy TV tie-in book for my husband, based on the TV series "Farscape" (the book is Farscape: Ship of Ghosts, ostensibly by David Bischoff). Because Lister Abigail Carlton '92 is a "Farscape" fan and advised me about the show, I got a kick out of making her a character in the book. (She appears as the alien Igai-"Igai" excerpted from "Abigail"-and Abigail has assured me that the fact that her character is willowy compensates for the fact that she has tentacles.) I've passed some of the baby things I've received on to other Listers as a sort of post-BMC May Day gift and I'll pass more on as my baby outgrows them. (Although I'm not sure I can be persuaded to let go of the tiny owl sweater.)
I've also met up with Listers every place from Maui (Syd Jamison '59) to Indianapolis (Brigid Manning-Hamilton '78). And I know that other contacts are being exchanged and connections made all the time. Listers are getting together whenever an out-of-town Lister visits a city where Listers live. People have found jobs through other Listers.
Continuing the conversation
The community of the List was perhaps especially powerful around September 11. Lister Jen Noon '96 had just begun a long stay in Italy when the attacks happened, and was very worried when she was unable to reach her brother, a New Yorker. The New York Listers were able to phone her brother and e-mail Jen to tell her he was O.K. She also shared in the moving outpouring of emotion and consolation in the days following. Jen writes, "The List's presence in my life then was more powerful and helpful than anything else was."
To me the Bryn Mawr List is community in the best way that Bryn Mawr was community: a group of like-minded, extraordinary women, still blessed with that famous cussed individualism, looking out for one another and talking about everything under the sun.
Lister Julia Alexander '96 expressed it when she said she was out at a bar with friends on a Saturday night and found herself thinking, "If I leave now, I can get home and spend some time with the List!" It puts me in mind of an article I read about the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, who keep a campfire going all the time, and there are always people around it, talking, even late into the night. If you can't sleep, you get up and join the conversation around the campfire. Bryn Mawr was like this for me, and even more so, the List is like this: going about your daily life, but every day joining the conversation around the campfire.
Martha Bayless '80 is associate professor of English at the University of Oregon. Alumnae may sign up for the Listserve. Return to Winter 2003 highlights