In Memoriam

Lynn Burson
1948-1999

Lynn Burson was a friend of mine in Austin, Texas. I do not want her forgotten, and perhaps I can help a little bit with this page.

We got off to a curious start. My first wife and I arrived in Austin in August, 1975. We had reserved an apartment in Married Student Housing, an area called Deep Eddy, which consisted of World War II surplus bungalows that were divided into four apartment, two upstairs, two downstairs. For a few days, we were in the business of acquiring furniture. One of our neighbors, Donna (Coates) Rogers, knew that Lynn was getting ready to go to Japan for research on a Fulbright Scholarship and was selling off a lot of stuff, including furniture, from her apartment. I can't remember what we got, but it was something. So I met Lynn, briefly, as she was, after a fashion, going out the door.

A year later she came back. The faded photo of Lynn at left appears to be at Deep Eddy, about that time. Meanwhile Donna had been looking after her affairs to the extent that was necessary, and somehow Lynn had gotten the idea that I had been helping out. Perhaps I had, but I'm not sure what my services would have consisted of. Nevertheless, one way Lynn wanted to express her thanks was by having us over to dinner. I was on my own at that point, so I don't think my first wife ever saw Lynn again.

Lynn had taken some cooking classes in Japan, and part of the dinner she served was tempura. At the time, my knoweldge of Japanese food was limited. I had lived in Honolulu but had only eaten at a Japanese restaurant once. The American craze for sushi had not begun, and the ratio of Chinese to Japanese restaurants in Honolulu was actually quite large, despite the ethnic ratio in Hawai'i being the opposite. I really only knew about sushi from what was sometimes sold in packets by the checkout counter in the markets. I don't know how that could have been very fresh. Similarly compromised was my experience with tempura. I had only eaten it in the East-West Center Cafeteria, where their idea seemed to be to let the tempura sit in oil for a while after they had cooked it. This turned it into a greasy mess. But I didn't know any better.

Of course, when they let the patties for the teri-burgers sit in the teriyaki sauce, this actually made them the best teri-burgers I've ever had. Later, returning to Honolulu, after the East-West Center cafeteria was gone and only the student center cafeteria was available, they turned a hamburger into a teri-burger by just pouring on some teriyaki sauce. This was not the same thing, and I still have not been able to duplicate how good those original East-West Center teri-burgers were.

Be that as it may, I had no idea what real tempura should be like until Lynn Burson served it up. It was a revelation. Not oily, but light. This set the standard, even for tempura I have subsequently had in Japan. Lynn really knew what she was doing.

Lynn had stories about her cooking classes in Japan. One class was making cakes. She said that people complained about her cakes that they had too much taste. Japanese food can be rather bland -- apart from the wasabi, which is like a powerful green horseradish (and in the States often is horseradish, with green food coloring). But you don't put wasabi on cakes. I knew some of that about Japanese food after my first wife and I took out to dinner my Korean officemate from the University of Hawai'i, Gun-won Lee, and his wife. We went to what was really a quite good Mexican restaurant in Honolulu, La Paloma. After the meal, and after eating some of the hot salsa right out of its caddy, Gun-won pronounced that Mexican food was "for eating," unlike Japanese food, which was "for looking at."

Apparently, Lynn's ideas about food were more of the eating than the looking at variety.

Subsequently, my paths crossed with Lynn's every so often. Frequently it was at the parties or outings that Donna and her husband Mike used to conduct. Meanwhile, Lynn had accepted her fondness for women over men, and I began to meet her girlfriends. So she was plus-one at my 30th birthday party in 1979, when I cooked chili for everyone. It was pretty good, despite being quite underdeveloped in relation to the way I make it now. At the same time, when I packed up and left Deep Eddy in 1979, Lynn and her friend got some of my furniture, although not the same furniture we had gotten from her in 1975.

Lynn seemed to have had little taste for a full-time academic career, and I am still unclear how she was often making a living, although it included some teaching, work as a psychic, and some related things about which the obituary below may give some indication. She got very interested in bellydancing, although I don't know if it was just a hobby or involved professional applications. I had gotten a glimpse of this sort of thing in Lebanon, although some male members of my Beirut group became regulars at actual bellydancing clubs -- before the Lebanese civil war. Lynn liked the idea that the development of the form involved women dancing for each other, in the polygamous harem, rather than just for men.

The teaching that Lynn did was in its own way particularly noteworthy. At the University of Texas she was able to give some classes that compared Japanese movies to the American Westerns that were often based on them. Conspicuous examples, of course, were Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai [1954] and the Western The Magnificent Seven [1960], or Kurosawa's Yojimbo [1961] and Sergio Leone's Western Fistful of Dollars [1964], with Clint Eastwood. Later I realized that Yojimbo was actually based on an American detective story, Red Harvest [1929], by Dashiell Hammett, which was adapted a bit more like its original temporal and cultural context in Walter Hill's Last Man Standing [1996], with Bruce Willis -- although this was not as good a movie as the other versions and did poorly in theaters. Lynn's classes must have made an impression on people, since not long ago I received an e-mail inquiry from someone, who had taken one of those classes, asking about Lynn, who unfortunately had passed away more than a decade earlier. When Lynn taught the classes, I was no longer living in Austin, so I didn't have the chance even to sit in on any of them.

Lynn's sexual preference led to some curious moments. One evening, for some reason, we went out to a restaurant called "Les Amies," which the cartoonist Berke Breathed would identify as the hang-out for the "artistic" crowd in Austin. Now it is a Starbucks. While we talked, Lynn and I were both girl-watching. I think that was the only time I was in such a situation, with a woman who was also looking appreciatively at the women. An intriguing comparison of impressions.

Breathed himself, before the sucess of his Bloom County cartoons, and his 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning, was a cartoonist at the Daily Texan student newspaper. His work was already brilliant, and once he did a cover for the weekly magazine that the Texan published, which showed about half a dozen hang-outs around the University, with the kind of crowd that frequented them. I am still kicking myself that I didn't keep my copy -- too soon old, too late smart. Where I ate, Sebastian's sandwich shop, Breathed identified as the favorite of tweedy, bearded academic types. That was me. Sebastian's made its own bread, and its sandwiches were actually so superior that I still have not seen their like. Yet, like so much else (e.g. Chef Ho's), it is long gone. Also, curiously, the manager, who had gotten to know me well by sight, ended up as my first wife's second husband. He was reluctant to admit it to me at the time; but later, after they divorced, we had a very friendly meeting, like old comrades in arms, in an Austin bar where I happened to run into him.

At right we have Lynn demonstrating some bellydancing on the front porch of the house of Robert and Daphne Daniel, on Castle Hill (now unnecessarily altered to Castle Hill Street) in Austin. The gentleman appears to be Mike Rogers, Donna's husband at the time.

One of my neighbhor's in Deep Eddy, Brad Benton, was a musician. At some point in the late '70's, he decided to put together a group to perform gagaku -- "elegant music." This was the formal music of the Imperial Japanese Court, and its aesthetic contained little that would be familiar from Western music. Indeed, it is the sort of music that might drive cats out of the house and start dogs howling. Brad and his wife had both had some experience in Japan. They even got married there. And Brad and I once engaged in a sake drinking contest, to see if getting drunk on sake resulted in fewer hangover symptoms than other kinds of alcohol. It did.

Although I was not aware that Lynn had any other experience with musical instruments, Brad recruited her for the gagaku group. She certainly knew what it was all about. And it all turned out rather well. Brad was able to stage a concert on campus at UT. It wasn't exactly the sort of crowd a Rolling Stone's concert would have drawn, and some members may have found it all perplexing. But it was the real thing, and it was recorded, providing me with a tape to perplex the neighbors when necessary.

Again we have Lynn bellydancing, with Mike again, but now we have Donna laughing off to the right.

In 1989, I was teaching in Los Angeles and had a new girlfriend -- whom I later married. Lynn came out for some event, got in touch, and suggested that we all go to Disneyland. So we did, and had a great time, including eating at some restaurant nearby that Lynn had heard about. It was the last time I visited Disneyland, and it was before they built whole new areas that signifcantly altered the geography of the park.

While we were rehydrating in the afternoon, there was a curious episode. I developed the hiccups. Lynn said that part of her psychic activities involved healing. So she rubbed her hands together, placed one on my abdomen, and the hiccups stopped.

I didn't hear much else about this sort of thing; and it is then, of course, a sad irony that she should later fall ill and die so young. But I've know several people now who were struck down young by pancreatic cancer -- including Frank Lambert, linked below -- which still has a very poor survival rate. It seems to be a merciless disease that comes out of nowhere.

As it happens, I wonder if this trip to Disneyland was actually the last time I saw Lynn Burson. I was busy teaching in the '90's; my wife and I were separated by our jobs; and I was usually spending vacation time back at Princeton. Nevertheless, I know I stopped off in Austin more than once, and even made a special trip for the retirement party for my dissertation advisor, Douglas Browning. If I saw Lynn on any of those occasions, it was a casual enough encounter that it left no particular trace in my memory. Donna had moved away, and it wasn't quite the same circle of friends. Of course, in retrospect, it is disturbing to have fallen out of touch to the extent that we did. But I also discover that this is not unusual with age; and both my wife and I find ourselves drifting away from some old friends. Getting back in touch doesn't always seem to work, and now there is this dynamic that some people actually die, and the very possibility of reconnecting is precluded.

Of course, with Lynn, there were some things she was into, like Wicca, that didn't much interest me. But it is hard not to remember all of my life in Austin fondly, and our group of friends, and she was a distinctive part of that. If the trip to Disneyland was the last time we had a good visit, I enjoy the memory of it as particularly positive, friendly, and enjoyable. Which, at the time, did not seem in any way remarkable. And, really, who else have I been to Disneyland with? Only my parents. And Lynn got to meet my wife, who, like a lot of us, has her own (karmic?) connection to Japan, now as the actual Professor of Japanese Religion at Princeton.

The photos and the copy of the obitruary on this page were provided by Donna Coates. My own photos, which may include Lynn, and certainly do from Disneyland, are buried in the effects that I brought from Los Angeles with me to New Jersey in 2013. It may be a while before I can examine all of them, if ever.

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Frank Lambert (1943-1985)

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