I caught Ben Orlove, 46, in his office on the UC Davis campus one day last week. I was lucky to find him in. The professor of environmental studies spent the first part of the summer visiting the Lake Titicaca region of Peru and Bolivia to conduct anthropological field research.
He's spending the second part of the summer visiting family and friends on trips to New York and Boston. He also will give two readings at bookstores in those cities from his book "In My Father's Study" (University of Iowa Press, 1995).
Orlove, who looks a bit like actor Jeff Goldblum, said his dual narrative, part a biography of his father/part autobiography, came out in April. University of Iowa Press included Orlove's title in its series of North American autobiographies called "Singular Lives."
The singular life examined in "In My Father's Study" belonged to Solomon Orlovski, a Russian Jew born in 1904, who emigrated to America in 1921 and transformed himself into Robert Orlove, a pattern maker in two senses: During the day, he worked in the family fur business in New York and Chicago making patterns for toys and hats; in his private life at home he became a self-taught artist who created prints, sketches and collages in his study.
More than 60 years later his son, Ben, an anthropologist educated at Harvard and Berkeley, walked through the doorway of his father's study in Davis and began to explore more than half a century of his father's experiences, thoughts and emotions as well as his own very different life.
Ben Orlove's parents moved to Davis to be near their son in their final years. His father died in 1987, his mother two years later.
"Before he died, I had no idea I'd be writing about him," Orlove said. Orlove knew he would inherit his father's diaries, but he didn't know what that would come to mean to him.
The book began to take shape when he'd written a couple of chapters on family letters and inscriptions on the back of photographs. After writing those chapters, he felt he might be able to put together a book. "Biographies can be excessively linear," says Orlove. "In my book I trace (my father's) life from his own mismatched parents to the personal ease he reached within himself late in life. But it's not linear. I linger in places. Like describing chess games...how my father would pick up an opponent's piece...I have many recollections of his hands."
Orlove said his father hated the family fur business. "But for someone who was troubled he had a great sense of humor and it was fun to remember those moments. It was nice just to be with him again."
Orlove also described how he came to accept his father's death and, later, his mother's.
In writing the book he said he learned that everyone is a rich and complex person and he especially came to appreciate the gap in his father's life between what he did and what he wanted to do.
And he says you don't have to be a trained anthropologist to do what he did.
"My academic background helped with the detective work," he said. "But much of it was just being there and letting my mind wander and remember. I had a lot of material but I took the time to go through it and puzzle over it and go back over my own memories."
He says many people can rediscover their intimate relationships if they will only take the time. Look closely at old photos and personal effects. Let the memories return.
He says literature offers a wealth of material on relationships between mothers and daughters, less on father/son relationships. But his bookshelf includes these books on fathers and sons: Franz Kafka's "Letter to My Father," "The Invention of Solitude" by Paul Auster, Phillip Roth's "Patrimony" and "The Duke of Deception" by Geoffrey Wolff.
"I'm now working on a book about my recent field work in Peru," said Orlove. "I hope it will cross over between academic and general interest."
"It opens with me leaving the field site. The (Peruvian) villagers begged me not to forget them...to them, forgetting is a betrayal of individuals and their values."
To Orlove, it also would be a betrayal to forget his father and mother.