To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Post 7: At Some Point

"I'm sorry," I told Charlie. He was sitting on the steps on the porch of the Mansion, whittling something. I'd come up behind him.

"For what?" he asked, inspecting his whittling. He was putting a point on a long, thin, point of wood, though I could not think why.

"For acting like a kid scared you might get mad at me."

He grunted, like a single chuck of a chuckle, acknowledging, perhaps, that I'd understood him correctly. But he didn't look at me, only at his pointed stick. He seemed a little sad, somehow.

"Thank you," he said, and returned to his whittling. I sat down beside him on the steps, and we were both silent for a while, before he spoke again. "I was only ever a boogeyman for you. If you want to keep me in that role, that's your business."

"I don't know. I mean, I know it's only ever been my choice, but I like knowing that if I don't follow through you'"

I meant that being his student, being a student, was my choice, not something imposed on me by anyone else. At the very beginning, he had offered to help me by pushing me harder than I could push myself. He'd said everyone needs a boogeyman. That's what I meant by him caring, that he'd get upset, or pretend to get upset, if I ever gave him less than my best. 

As I said the word 'care' he looked over at me, just for a moment.

"I do care," he said, inspecting his whittling again. "That's why if you're going to treat me like the enemy, you can go right to hell. Because I can't help you if your not honest with me about what you want."

"I don't want to do this giving advice thing."

"Ok, why not?"

"Because it's artificial," I said. "To ask for advice creates a bond, an opportunity, if that isn't there...I asked what if no one asks. Well, if no one asks, then I don't want to give advice. I don't want to be pressured to offer maybe unwanted advice. I don't want to advise other people for me--or even for you. I already know what my essay would say if I did that--I'd have to say I'd done something wrong."

Another chuck of sad, almost-laughter.

"If you already know all that," he said, "than you're a better young man than I was at your age."

I had no response to that, so I changed topics.

"What's that you're whittling?"

"A piece of scrap wood."

"No, I mean, why? What's the objective?"

"To make it look like a spear. Because I want to."

I watched him play at making a spear for a while.

"You ever wish late summer could last forever?" he said. And indeed the gardens had gone messy and top-heavy with blossoms and, beyond our view, on the other side of the hedge, those parts of the Flat Field and the pastures below it that had not been cropped close this year had become a sea of goldenrod and asters, attended by grasshoppers, mantises, and now the first of the monarch butterflies streaming south toward Mexico. In another few weeks, most of it will be fading.

And yet I could not say that fall had ever made me sad.

I spoke later with Allen, with whom I can be more articulate, since he demands articulate-ness, just as Charlie demands intellectual--and interpersonal--honesty. And of course, it's easier to talk about things with a neutral party.

"I was acting like a rebellious little kid," I explained, "and I can see why Charlie didn't like that, but I guess I like acting like a kid with somebody."

"Even though being treated like a kid pisses you off?"

"Well, yes, naturally."

Allen laughed at me.

"Daniel, you have encountered the central mystery of adolescence."

"At twenty-seven years of age?" I just had a birthday.

"Better late than, seriously, adulthood is sort of a work in progress. The tendencies of childhood never entirely leave you."

"Adulthood is a choice."

"Every day."

"I just..." I didn't know how to put it, "I like having someone else in charge, someone who seems to know everything. I don't like it, but I like it. Do you know what I mean?"

"Yes," said Allen. "You know, I don't have anyone like that for me. Not anymore."

"And you know all the deliberate mysteries around here, too. You know how the stage magic works."

"I do."

"Does that ever bother you?"

He made a non-committal sort of shrug, declining to directly answer the question.

"Daniel, at some point, you've got to start making magic for others."

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Post 5: Whatever He Wants

So, Charlie told me I have no right to treat him like a father who doesn't love me. Those were pretty much his exact words. What the hell? What does that even mean?

I got out of there, and he let me go. He usually does drop his little bombs of pronouncement and skeedadle, and I don't think either of us wanted to continue that conversation. But I did have to figure out some kind of response, and I couldn't do that alone, so I sought out Allen.

For once, we went for a walk together, instead of meeting for lunch or bumping into each other in the Great Hall as we normally do. Fall was in the air. It has been, intermittently, for a few weeks now, but I think it's finally here for good. The trees are still entirely green, though, and the air full of mosquitoes. We kept moving to avoid being bitten. Crickets sang in the grass all around us, grass that was thigh-high where we walked out beside and below the Edge of the World. I told him my tale.

"What does he even mean, like a father who doesn't love me?" I asked. "Does he want me to treat him like a father who does love me, or is he mad at me for treating him like a father in the first place? Which I don't even think I do." Some people might say I was overthinking it, but Allen wouldn't. To him, there's no such thing as too much thinking, only good thinking and poor thinking.

We were quiet for a bit as he did some of his own thinking.

"I expect he does love you," Allen said, after a bit. "I do. But whether he thinks of you as his son or not I don't know."

"Maybe his feelings aren't really relevant," I suggested. "Maybe that's just his way of describing my behavior."

"Maybe, though you did say he seemed angry. That suggests emotional investment on his part."

"It does, but it doesn't say anything about what that investment is."

"So, how do you feel?" he asked me, eyes twinkling because of course that's what a therapist would say.

"I don't know. Angry. Confused. Frightened. I guess."

He smiled, quickly and briefly, because I'd said I didn't know and then I did know. I still don't know what goes on with me most of the time, but it's like when I said (truthfully) that I didn't know, I heard his voice in my head taking me through the process of figuring it out and I came at the answer without even any perceptible pause in my speech. He understood, I think, hence that quick smile.

"What thoughts go with that 'frightened'?" he asked. Notice he didn't ask why I was frightened. He tends not to. He says the stories we make up to explain our emotions are seldom more than that--stories--but they can be important to voice.

"I don't know, it's just...he's angry with me and I don't know what to do. That's it, I guess. I can't and I must. I can't imagine not having an answer for him."

"An answer? What's the question?"

"It's not so much a question," I said, "it's that he clearly wants something from me and I don't know what he wants. I don't even know where to start."

"So, what's your question?" He stopped in his walking and looked at me, faintly amused, until the mosquitoes made him start walking again.

"What does he want from me?"

"I don't know," Allen said. "Are you sure he wants something specific?"

"I guess. He said I was doing something wrong, so doesn't that imply something right he'd rather I do?"

"It's odd for you not to be able to figure out how to answer him, though. After four and a half years as his student? You usually figure it out, don't you?"

"Yes, I always have...If only I knew what treating someone like a father who doesn't love me means!"

He stopped, a moment, as though struck by a sudden thought.

"Why don't you ask your father?" he said.

"My father? Why"

"Because you know he does love you."

It was my turn to stop, because suddenly that made sense to me. But the mosquitoes got me going again.



"Is it weird being friends with me?"

"Not especially. A lot of my friends are a lot weirder than you."

"No, I mean because I'm also your student. And I was a teenager when we met."

"We're all students here. To the extent that I can learn from you, we're equals."

"When did that happen?"

"The day we met. I'd be a pretty sorry teacher if I couldn't learn from my students."

And so our conversation continued. And so, this past weekend, I did something I've never done before--made a cell-phone call on campus. I own a cell-phone now. There's a rule (added while I was in Absence) against yearlings having cellphones or other electronics on campus, but it doesn't apply to me. It's just that calling out always seems like a strange thing to do, here. But I did it.

I called my dad.

He was surprised to hear from me by phone, of course, but had time to talk.

"Dad, what does a kid whose father loves him do?"

"What? Why are you asking me?"

"Because you love me and I'm your kid. I figured you'd know."

He remained confused for a bit and I had to explain it further, but finally he had an answer for me.

"What does the son of a loving father do? From what I can see, he does whatever he wants."

Monday, September 4, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Post 4: What the?

A week ago, Charlie told me to find three yearlings and give them advice--and then write him an essay on whether I should have given them advice or not. Honestly, the assignment kind of bends my brain, because obviously the point is for me to realize I shouldn't have given them the why set me up? Why make me do something I shouldn't do? Don't I make enough mistakes on my own?

But I wanted to do what Charlie told me to do. Maybe there was something to the assignment I hadn't thought of. There usually is. I trust Charlie, and, more than that, doing what he tells me is kinda what I do. It's how we connect. I don't want to lose that. Sounds strange, I know, but true.

So, I decided to focus on the first part of the assignment, take it one step at a time, and find somebody to advise.

And I couldn't find anybody. It's actually not that unusual for me to help people out, especially yearlings. People talk to me. Sometimes I give information, or suggest a course of action, though more usually I just listen and they figure it out on their own, but it's not like I've never occupied that role before. But I don't approach them. They approach me. And this past week, nobody has. Not for the whole week.

I told Charlie.

"So? I didn't give you a time limit," he said.

"But what if nobody does? What if nobody needs my advice? Ever?"

"And what if snakes fly out of my ears? People need advice. Find them. 'What if' is not my problem. Or yours, Daniel."

I had no response to that. I hadn't a clue how to do what he was asking. That's never stopped me from doing it before, but....

"You don't want to do this one, do you?"

I didn't answer.

"Are you going to give this one a shot or not?"

"Yes, of course I will, Charlie," I told him. Because of course I do everything he tells me to do.

He stared at me for a few seconds.

"Oh, no," he said, after a bit, "Oh, no. Don't you start blowing smoke up my ass now."


"You're lying to me. You're going to try to weasel out of this one. You think it's impossible."

"What? No, I...." I didn't know how to respond. I'd seen Charlie growl before, I'd even seen him yell, but I had never really believed he was angry. Like, it was all just a show he put on for educational purposes. But now he was angry, actually angry. I had no idea what I was supposed to do.

"You have no right," he breathed, "to treat me like a father who doesn't love you."

Monday, August 28, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Post 3: Chrysalis

Summer and the summer camp are over, fall semester has begun, and my wife is, once again, a full-time student (though she still has some duties completing paperwork, supervising clean-up, and squaring away finances). She's once again taking all of Allen's classes--Lies, Statistics, and Illusions, Healer's Health, and Tricks of the Trade--plus Intermediate Martial Arts and Sword, both with Karen.

Of those five, all but Healer's Health are extensions of classes she's taken before. Not that she's repeating anything. Tricks of the Trade and Sword are both cumulative, and she hasn't taken Intermediate Martial Arts before, only its prerequisites. She took a statistics course as an undergrad, but of course that didn't have Allen's focus on perception. But Healer's Health is the one really new thing. I took it, as a novice. It's all about how to avoid burning out, how to not get codependent with the people you're trying to help, how to not become a workaholic, how to recognize signs of mental health problems and exhaustion in oneself, that sort of thing. I wish I'd paid more attention to what I learned in it when I was in grad school. She's impressed that we teach it here at all, because, as she points out, almost nobody teaches self-care as a part of professional training, even though all professionals need it.

"Its like they teach you every part of flying except the staying in the air part," she says.

She wanted to take more classes, she's very funny how excited she is to focus on academics again, but fortunately someone talked her out of it.

I was not allowed to talk her out of it. My access to my wife is still being rationed. It's as though we lived on opposite sides of the country, not in the same building. In a way it's easier, now that she fully understands why this is happening and I don't have to keep her away from me, but in a way it's harder--what if we get stuck like this?

"We will tell her to talk to you and to be with you, at the end of the year," Allen assures me. What they break, they plan to fix, I guess.

But it's frustrating. Again, it's like I'm being treated like a child. I'm looking at thirty, now. And it's not just with June, it's in my academics, too. In grad school, I didn't always know everything that was going on (there's an initiatory component to becoming a scientist that I didn't appreciate until afterwards), but I knew what credits I needed, what classes were available to take, and I had an advisor (actually two--one academic advisor, one thesis advisor) who would give me actual advice, if I asked for it.

As opposed to Charlie, who gives me orders and then walks away, leaving me to figure out exactly what he's talking about.

Case in point: today he walked up to me, asked me to give advice to at least three yearlings by the end of the month, and to write up a report on whether I should have given the advice or not. So, part of my homework is to figure out whether I should have done my homework?

This Mysterious Master thing was cute--ok, it was enjoyable, intriguing, glamorous--in the past, but it's not anymore. It's like, ok, I get it, Charlie, you're smarter and wiser than me. But why can't I be given the information I need to make decisions about my life?

Of course, I am making decisions. It's not like I'm locked in. I have an outside job, I have an education, I could leave any time I want to, and I want to stay here, doing this, despite everything. Maybe I'm afraid that if I said anything, that's what he'd come back with--well, leave, if you don't like it here. And he'd have a point. I mean, I knew what kind of teacher Charlie is before I came back from my Absence. It's just that it feels like I got my first real taste of adulthood while I was away, and now I have to crawl back into that proverbial chrysalis again.

But it's for a greater purpose, a deeper sort of adulthood, I suppose, so I do what he tells me, what they all tell me, and I try to do it well.

I'm even taking a class of my own, in addition to the ones requires for candidates and the things I'm teaching--Climate, Weather, and History. It's pretty much what it sounds like, and it's fascinating.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


I'll be away from the Internet on Monday, so I'll post next week's installment late next week.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Post 2: Deep Dive

Allen organizes his day around swimming, as far as I can tell.

I don't know what he does when he's at home (I could ask Ollie, but haven't), but when he's least in the summer, his hair is often wet.

He comes in by bike on Tuesday morning. He doesn't have to attend breakfast on Tuesday, because the rule is you have to go to breakfast if you spent the night before, and in the winter he often comes in only at the end, just in time to hear announcements. If he's running late, he'll still be wearing his cycling clothes, carrying his helmet. But in the summer, if Ollie and I go for a run in the morning, we'll often see him coming in when we come back to the Mansion to shower before breakfast--that's around seven. I don't know if he's trying to beat the heat of the day, or if he just likes getting up before dawn, as he must do summer and winter, to maintain that schedule.

Usually, he'll have Alexis with him, if she's not in camp. A lot of the Sprouts spend most of the summer on campus, whether they're in camp or not (Charlie used to have a pile. This year he has only Julius, because Janus and James are still toddlers and the others aged out of Sproutdom). When I was a novice, Allen would come in with Julie and David behind him on their own bikes and Alexis in a carrier. Now Alexis has her own bike and follows her father alone. David is in college. Julie is working a summer job. The carrier isn't even on Allen's bike, anymore. Instead, he has pannier bags.

Anyway, at lunch, Allen disappears from campus again. I see him coming in to eat just before classes are due to start, his black hair wet, his shirt--always a professional-looking short-sleeved button-down, never a t-shirt--damp from being put on just after he got out of the lake. This year I've gone with him a few times. It's just a short bike-ride away. The cool water feels good. I splash around a bit, swim a few laps along the shore. Allen disappears. From the minute he steps in the lake, he spends as much time under water as he can, hyperventilating before he submerges so he can stay down even longer. He surfaces like a seal, to breathe, when he has to.

He stays the week on campus, but I still see him bike in before breakfast, because he goes for a swim first thing, while the air is still chilly. But he doesn't feel the cold.

Every day, it's his ritual. He even goes when it's raining. "Why wouldn't I swim when it's raining?" he asks. "I'm going to get wet, anyway." And he has a point.

I once asked him why he likes swimming so much.

"Why does anybody like anything?" he answered, and I waited for him to give me a real answer. We were eating lunch, just after he'd gotten back. He does look happier, more energized and more relaxed, after he has come from the water. "I feel calmer under there," he said. "I feel at home."

"Water is the emotional element," said Kit, who was eating with us. "You are a psychologist."

"I'm not sure I feel at home in emotions, though," he said. "That's why I'm a psychologist."

"Nobody is totally at home in water," she replied. "We can't breathe in it. To stay fully immersed, we have to bring some air down with us." Metaphysically, as you may know, water is associated with emotions, air with the intellect.

"Intellectually, I agree with you," said Allen. "I am a psychologist--I study emotions intellectually. I have snorkled and SCUBA-dived, and I like both. But what I like best is going down, just me, and exhaling to make myself less buoyant, and just exist down there, wholly of the water, not breathing. I like to get away from air, when I can."

Monday, August 7, 2017

Mastery Year 1: Part 5: Lammas

Happy (belated) Lammas. Or Lughnasadh. "Lammas" is short for loaf-mas, suggesting a Christian version of the holiday that I've never otherwise heard of, and "Lughnasadh" means "mourning for Lugh," Lugh being a Celtic deity associated with agriculture. There is a story in which he and another figure compete for the same woman, killing each other and then reviving in turn. The story is an allegory for the alternation of summer and winter, or something like that. I forget if I've ever explained that before.

It's curious that we have a holiday called "Mourning for Lugh," even though nobody on campus mentioned Lugh at any other time, except occasionally at storytelling events, and nobody mentions him much even on Lughnasadh. I mean, it's not like anybody on campus that I know of is actually a devotee of that particular god, so why do we have a holiday mourning him? And why don't we spend it in mourning?

There was one year when all the songs they played were about loss, and I've heard last year, when I wasn't here, also had loss as a major theme. I think loss gets into it both because we can start to see the end of summer approaching, which is kind of sad, especially if you really like summer, and out of the recognition that it's a harvest festival, and in order to harvest something, even a plant, you need to kill it (or, in some cases, wait for it to die). But it's not, overall, a day of mourning for us, no.

And this year the weather was horribly, almost frighteningly hot, and has been for a week, so nobody in their right mind would feel sad at all about the prospect of summer ending.

I have heard that one of Lugh's names is Lugh of the Skillful Hand, and that he won acceptance from the other gods and goddesses because while each of his skills was something one or another of the other deities could already do, he didn't offer anything wholly new, none of them could do everything that he could. So that may explain the theme for the day--people showing off what they do well.

The feast, of course, shows off Sarah's skill as a farmer and Sadie's skill as a chef and baker. That happens every year, and it's fantastic. Some years there are tasting contests for various fruits and vegetables, usually so we can have a voice in what will be planted next year. This year instead there was a tasting for varieties of honey, all bought from different regional farmers, plus honeys from our own hives gathered at different times of the year. Wholly impractical--we would stick with our honey even if some farmer in the next county had something we all liked better--but delicious. There were also tastings for different zucchini breast recipes and different kinds of jelly, and those will have an impact on what we get in the dining hall over the nest year.

And there were not one but two performances. The first, in the big tent on the Central Field as we ate, was a combination magic and juggling show. Ten different acts, mostly students, each had five or ten minutes to wow and entertain the crowd. One of the acts, a pair of talented yearlings, enlisted Greg, apparently as a volunteer, but he ended up quite clearly being involved in a planned slight-of-hand sequence that none of us had known he could do. That was awesome. June is a magic student as well, but she didn't perform. Ebony did. I had seen Ebony do magic before, of course, but this was the first time I saw her do a full performance. She had one of the longest acts, full of professional prattle and schtick, based largely on a series of "mistakes," by which she set up the audience (those few who didn't know any better) to feel bad for the poor little blind girl, before objects reappeared in improbable places, apparently out-of-control accidents resulted in the impossible occurring, and people who appeared eager to help her in a condescending way suddenly found trained ferrets or homing pigeons inside their clothing or under their hats.

"One of these days," I whispered to June, "she'll run out of people who underestimate her and she'll need a new shtick."

"What makes you think you're not still underestimating her?" June whispered back. And interesting comment, as I don't think they know each other well, but they do magic together in class, so I suppose knows Ebony has something else up her sleeve.

Anyway, the final magician on stage was Allen, blooming out of another act's magic to thunderous applause.

Specifically, six students had taken turns pulling progressively more improbable things out of a black top hat resting on a wooden stool in the middle of the stage. Then the seventh reached in and could not find anything. The group acted as though the magic hat were "broken," clustering around it and trying various things to "fix" it and eliciting weird noises, bad odors, or unpleasant objects (a realistic-looking plastic scorpion, an apparently literal hot potato) instead, until one of them pulled out what appeared to be a lit cherry bomb!

All of them ran around the stage with this thing for a few seconds, before they dropped it in the middle of the stage near the stool and cowered. The thing burst, producing a large billow of smoke instead of the dangerous explosion of a real cherry bomb, and when the smoke cleared, there was Allen, sitting on the stool and wearing the top-hat.

I've thought about how he could have done that--there was no tap door, no possibility of a wire to be lowered on, nothing nearby to hide behind...I think he simply walked on stage while we were all distracted by watching the cherry bomb. It's like the gorilla experiment, in which you don't even see someone in a gorilla suit because you're busy counting the number of times people throw a ball.

Anyway, the others left the stage to him, and he performed for about ten minutes and he was wonderful. Of course.

Then, because it was so hot, we all left the tent and had a water-gun fight until we were all soaked. Then we went back into the tent, where the buffet had been re-set with a feast of dessert, and for once, Charlie performed. He read a series of poems, mostly his and all excellent, before yielding the stage to a poetry slam, where several students performed spoken word pieces and we indicated by the loudness of our clapping which we thought best.

But by the time the slam was over, the masters were all gone, as were Chuck and Joe and Malachi, all of whom were visiting for the day. All vanished just like every year. As usual, nobody seemed to notice. The rest of us milled around and ate desert and chatted, and after a while a few people went to the Mansion and brought back their instruments and we danced until we drifted off to bed (the dining hall staff did put away the food, and the janitor team put away the tent and everything else the next day).

I almost asked one of the musicians if he'd seen the masters, but of course they would be upstairs on the fourth floor where we can't go, with their unannounced guests, doing whatever it is we can't know about.

I'm getting really tired of designed ignorance. I don't find it fun anymore.