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.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Second Interlude

Hi, it's me, Daniel-of-2013 again. And I have news. Not long ago, my wife and I welcomed our daughter to the world. I am, of course, protecting her privacy by not talking about her in any detail here, though as you can imagine I've been running around telling everybody I know personally all about her.

Maybe my slowness at getting pictures posted makes sense now? The fact of the matter is that I wrote up most of these posts ahead of time so I could keep up with my posting schedule through our baby's first few weeks by just editing a little, but I did not do any of the pictures ahead of time. I didn't think of it. So now I can't keep up. Painting takes time and a clean space to work, and these days I usually have neither. I'll get caught up later and post the pictures retroactively. That is my intention, anyway.

A few housekeeping notes.

First, for any readers who actually are birders, yes, Charlie's "listening to birds" exercise was both harder and easier than I thought it was at the time. There was a little more going on than I knew about. I won't elaborate now, since the details would probably bore anyone not perfectly capable of guessing on their own. Second, the extended workshop I referred to in my last post, the one that consisted of a trip to an island left just a few days after Beltane, but I'm going to present my posts about the trip slightly out of order. The reason is that I'm going to the same island this year, to see friends and to paint, and I want to post some of these paintings. I will therefore post about the island when I return, and while I'm gone I'll schedule several posts about events that actually happened after the trip. I don't think this anachronism will make much difference to the reader, but in the interests of accuracy I wanted to let you know. Third, I am not going to specify which island it is, other than to say it is publicly accessible and quite real. I may change a few minor details to discourage anyone guessing, since its location would be a clue as to the location of the school. And that I have agreed not to divulge.

It's interesting, looking over what I wrote so far, to see that my first dozen or so entries, those in "Part 1," are disproportionately about either Allen or Kit, while "Part 2" has been almost entirely about Charlie. In part, this is an artifact of space limitations. I was living the school every day all day, of course, and in writing this I have to reduce all of that experience to just a couple inches of text twice a week. I have had to include some events, in order to explain the setting and advance the plot, and that has left little room for other things that were equally important to me at the time. I did not stop looking up to Kit and Allen when I started looking up to Charlie. Furthermore, I actually spent only a minority of my time and energy thinking about and interacting with any faculty at all. If you had asked me then how I spent my time, I would have told you all about what I was doing with my friends--friends who were peers, I mean. But you can probably imagine my friendships with rough accuracy, as I don't think they were much different than the experience of any other young man--except that some of them were quite a bit older than I, because the age range of students was a lot greater than at most colleges. But the faculty, what they taught, and what they were like to work with, was unique, so far as I know. You couldn't imagine that, if I didn't tell you.

But it is true that I initially connected most with Kit and Allen out of all the staff. Before classes started in March, I rarely had any reason to spend a lot of time with any of the faculty, but Allen was an exception because he lead group therapy. And anyway, I spent a lot of time with Ollie and Ollie admired Allen and talked about him a lot. And of course, there was my crush on Kit. Then,over a number of weeks, I gradually grew curious about Charlie. I couldn't have said why, and I still can't explain why the curiosity started; he was a remarkable man, but I don't think I had any way of knowing that at the beginning.

Charlie liked to say that there are many possible ways to section reality to make a story. He meant "section" as in "conic section." If you take a solid cone, maybe made out of clay or ice cream or something solid but soft, and you slice through it, the sliced open face shows a two-dimensional shape. If you cut straight across horizontally, you get a circle. If you cut at an angle, you get an egg-shape. And so on. All these shapes you can get by cutting a cone are called conic sections, a fact that is utterly insignificant to most people, though I get a kick out of the idea. Anyway, Charlie meant that reality is to a story what that cone is to a two-dimensional slice. And in writing this story, I am constantly aware that I am sectioning reality, and that there are many other possible sections, other stories, that would be equally true.

Just like last time I broke in to comment like this, I'm concerned that this section I have chosen to slice may be presenting one of my professors inaccurately. I worry that I may have made Charlie come off as pretty humorless. Actually, he was a very funny, very playful man, it's just that he didn't joke around much with people he didn't know well, and thirteen years ago that included me. The other problem is that back then I didn't know enough about his world to get a lot of his jokes. I'd seen him joke or play pranks a few times that spring, but it was only later, sometimes years later, that I really understood everything that he'd said, that I really got the whole joke. So I haven't included any of those anecdotes because there is no way I can describe them fully from the perspective I had back then.

I left the roof off in this drawing because I never got a good look at it.
 I'll tell one now, in order to correct the record, but to do that I have to describe Chapel Hall a bit, first. I didn't do that earlier when I was describing the rest of campus, because I was writing about a time before classes started when I hadn't actually been in Chapel Hall very much.

From the outside, Chapel Hall looked, as I said, very collegiate, meaning that it was built of red brick with white trim and looked formal and decorative at once. It was an essentially cubic building, with four cupolas mostly used by ravens. Inside it was deliberately confusing.

The whole building was almost perfectly bilaterally symmetrical, so that there were two main doors and two sets of stairways, one of either side of the building, east-west. Most of the building was also symmetrical north-south, so that it was easy to get disoriented once you were inside. The ground floor had an almost open floor plan. The offices for some of the staff members were there, but there were a lot of internal windows so that sunlight could reach in and you could walk from one external door to the other, though not in a straight line. On the floor in the middle of that hallway was a large solar seal. Dust floated in stray sunbeams and the smell of old books.

But the other three floors were all dominated by the auditorium, the original chapel itself. It started on the second floor, but its ceiling was two and a half stories high. So if you were on the second floor, there would be the auditorium and also several classrooms and some restrooms off to either side. But if you went up to the third floor, the classrooms on the west side were completely cut off from those on the east side by the upper part of the chapel. We all spent our first week or so of classes constantly running up and down stairs because we had classes on the third floor and kept forgetting which side, east or west, we had to go to. And once up the wrong stairway, there was no way to get to the other side of the building without going either up or down.

The fourth floor was equally screwy, but in a very different way. You could get through, by walking over the top of the chapel, except the chapel had a curved ceiling so the fourth floor had a hump in it. The humped area was always referred to as the fourth-and-a-half floor. To cross from one side of the building to the other up there, you went up a couple of steps, over maybe twenty feet, and down a couple more steps.

Wait--how did all the rooms have windows? They did!
 But all this was not enough confusion for our school, so the fourth (and fourth-and-a-half) floor was divided into a warren of small, interconnecting classrooms, without a central hallway. To get to your class, you had to thread the maze. And the rooms up there had names, not numbers, and the names changed every year. When someone told a story from the previous year that had happened in one of those rooms, he or she always used the old name, as though the rooms, and not just the names, were changing.

The fourth floor was up near the roof of the building; when it rained hard in the summer you could hear the drops hit, very loud, on the roof. And some of the ceilings sloped, because the roof sloped. Where the slope dropped the ceiling down to five feet, there were dividing walls, but on the other side of those walls were eve spaces used for storage that could be accessed through cabinet doors cut into the wall. And there were no internal dividers in the eves, so once you got in there you could creep, unseen, from one class room to another.

So, once I was in class--I forget whether it was Psychology class and Kit was there as a guest speaker, or if it was a workshop Kit and Allen were team-teaching, but either way they were both there and we were in one of those rooms next to the eves. And suddenly Charlie leaped out of one of the cabinet doors.

“Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” he shouted, school robes swirling.

He was teaching a class in the neighboring room, and had crept soundlessly through the eve space. Kit startled beautifully with a shriek that made Charlie’s students in the other room laugh, but Kit was incidental to the joke; I'm not even sure Charlie had known she would be there. She and Charlie rarely interacted unless Allen was present, since he was friends with both of them. Allen had jumped, though he didn’t shriek, and then he busted up laughing. He had this awesome, boyish laugh. There were multiple students who would go really far out of their way to get Allen to laugh.
Kit didn’t laugh. Instead, she glared at Charlie.
“Oh, please. They would have burnt you, too,” she said, dismissively. Charlie raised his chin a fraction and his eyes flashed. Then he half-grinned.
“Fire?” he said, nonchalantly, “I’m not afraid of a little disturbance.” And he left the way he had come, closing the cabinet door behind him.

At the time I thought he was simply giving Kit a hard time for being scared, though Kit wasn’t scared, only startled. I don’t think Kit was ever scared of anything. But I found out later that fire is what ecologists call a disturbance. Unlike the rest of us, who tend to think of the world as groups of objects, ecologists think of the world as patterns and patterns of patterns in both space and time. To most of us, a forest is an object and so a fire is the end of that object. To Charlie and to people like him, fire is only another iteration of the pattern. Seen this way, Charlie's comment is not just a pun at Kit's expense, but has all these other meanings. I'm pretty sure that Kit and Allen both understood what he meant. They were his colleagues, and Kit had once been his student.But none of the rest of us got it. We'd heard Charlie talk about disturbance histories in class, and some of us had heard the phrase in high school, but we had so much else to think about and learn that studying ecology hadn't yet influenced our habits of thought. I didn't learn how to think like an ecologist until several years later, and I think some of the others never did. For them, science was the arcane, the real occult, hidden in plain sight by misunderstanding and lack of interest.

Trust my teacher to embed his jokes several layers deep in a field most of the rest of us didn’t study.

[Next Post: Friday, May 3rd: Beltane] 

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