Saturday, November 28, 2009

After My First Seminar

After my seminar the next day, I found myself in a café with a group of British students. One of them, a tall man named Errol, spoke with an accent would could simply call ‘educated’ and he seemed like a living member of Victorian aristocracy. There were times when I expected him to say, “By Jove, I believe you’re right,” or some other sort of thing that would seem dredged from the pages of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, because of this man’s presence, the entire group seemed to be made more British by the man’s aura that projected a bygone era of Empire.
“So tell me,” he said, “how are things in the Colonies?”
The rest of the group fell completely silent. I had to be impressive. (Especially since I had made the mistake of falling for one of the girls—auburn hair, green eyes, body of a goddess and—right, sorry, I’ll continue.) I cleared my throat, searched for the right term. How could I express the sense of hope after the last election? The sense that after eight years of being led astray and being dragged around by nincompoops with corporate expense accounts, everything might just be okay—even if we were in the midst of a horrible recession, and even if there were a substantial amount of loud, pissed off people with guns convinced they were seeing the next Hitler? Yes, it was quite a task, and—“Good,” I blurted.
The Brits nodded. “Ah,” said one of them. “That’s nice.”
Shit. Good? Good? The girl turned away from me to a man who, in his undergrad at Oxford, was on the rowing team. My mind’s eye showed me ruthless banging my head against a nearby white wall in frustration. I looked at the coffee in front of me and desperately wished that it had whiskey in it.
At this point, The Writer entered the café and was, by default, my saving grace. I leapt up, shouted, “Writer!” and beckoned him over with a gregarious wave of my hand. He screwed up his eyebrows under his—new, I guess—gray flat cap, looked behind him, turned back to me, and mouthed, “Me?” I nodded furiously. He ambled his way over, took off his corduroy jacket, and sat down next to me on one of the red sofas. “Everyone,” I said, “this is The Writer.”
Errol asked, “The Writer? Is Writer your surname?”
The Writer grunted. “Never been asked that before.”
“I sincerely doubt that,” continued Errol. “Tell me, is it fashionable to wear corduroy where you come from, or are you just mad?”
His girlfriend, seated next to him on the blue sofa, punched his shoulder. “Stop that, be nice.” She—Dani—was a very nice girl who wore glasses, had blue eyes, and, judging from her continued presence around Errol, had the patience of a saint.
Errol laughed and said, “Just kidding, mate.” He extended his hand, French-cuff shirt extending out from his second-hand RAF flight jacket he wore instead of a coat. His cuff links were Union flags. (As I found out from him later, the flag is not a Union Jack until it flies from a ship at sea. Oh, the things you learn!) “My name’s Errol.”
The Writer showed a bit of tact, shook his hand, and introduced himself all around.
“What do you study, Writer?” asked Dani.
“Ah, my dear,” The Writer said, visibly becoming smug, “I do not study so much as I create. I utilize that creative energy which flows so naturally through the world, capture it, and, like a master potter,” he started miming the act of creating a piece of pottery, “shape it to create what I desire. What the world should be. I,” he paused, took a breath, “am a Writer.”
If The Drunkard were here, The Writer would probably have been unconscious after speaking in italics.
“What a twat,” said the Oxford man. Suddenly, he went up in my esteem. (But still, did I seriously say good?)
“Hey,” I said to The Writer, “how about going and getting a drink?”
“But I just got here.”
“Exactly, so you’re not attached to staying.”
“Well I—”
“Nonsense, let’s go.” I stood, pulled The Writer up, and said to the Brits, “Well, really nice hanging out with all of you—we’re going to have to do this after next week’s meeting.” I pushed The Writer towards the door and we left the building.
Once we were outside, he said, “Now what the Hell was that about?”
“Are you serious?” I asked, moving towards one of the bars on campus. “All that talk about molding the creative energy like a master potter? Man, you have got to tone it down, you look like a prick.”
He stiffened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I seem like a perfectly erudite individual well attuned to their calling in life. If that’s not confidence, then I don’t know what is.”
“Confidence,” I said, “is being able to talk about what you do without glorifying it and trying to make it seem like you’re some supernatural gift to society. And, come the fuck on,” I said, dodging a group of Chinese students and speaking over them, “you’re speaking in capital letters and italics. No one does that. No man with half a brain should ever, ever do that.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “It worked magnificently back at college.”
“Really? Did it? I think you’re full of shit.”
The Writer blushed a bit. “Well, maybe not all of the time.” He fell silent. We crossed the road to the college in which the bar was located. Entering the doors, he said, “I can see your point, and I’ll try to be a bit more subtle in the future.”
“Thank you. Man,” I said, trying to lighten the mood, “you should just bring a tape recorder some time.”
“That bad?”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” he said, “why did you wave me over? It’s not as if we’re the best of friends and, to be frank, it surprised the hell out of me.”
“Well, how should I put this? They asked me about the States, and, while I was trying to think of a good response that would impress this really attractive girl—”
“The one with the long brown hair?”
“That’s the one. While I was trying to think of a response, some part of me took the reins of my vocal cords and responded with: Good.”
“Yup. Just good. Not even great, or anything about coming out of an eight-year period of xenophobia and fear, but good. Chipper would have been a better word, but I couldn’t even come up with that.”
The Writer winced. “Ouch.”
We entered the bar. It was a place that was trying very, very hard to be a rock music-oriented bar. They played Foo Fighters and that sort of alternative rock that was popular in the 90s. The floor was black tile, all of the chairs and tables were chrome-plated and really, really uncomfortable—except for a few sofas that were black and padded. Generally, before about six o’clock, the bar was empty.
It seems that the Universe would not allow me to have a one-on-one with anyone in my group; any time there was one person with me, another one turned up—usually The Student looking despondent about women. Today was no exception. He sat at the bar, clutching a Guinness for dear life. I nodded at the bar and said to The Writer, “And there is our studious companion. Let’s go join him, shall we?”
The Writer shrugged. At this point, I wasn’t sure about how he felt in regards to the rest of our party, so I took his shrug as a completely noncommittal response. We walked to the bar and sat on either side of The Student. “Howdy, partner,” I said.
The Student looked up at me. Behind his glasses, in those bloodshot eyes, I knew that he’d stumbled upon another taken woman. “Hey.”
“Problems again?” I asked.
He nodded.
“Never fear,” said The Writer, “based on the Law of Averages, you will, eventually, come across someone for whom you have it really bad and they will feel the same. Just a matter of time.”
The Student sighed. “I know what you’re trying to do, and I thank you for the good intention. However, Writer, I suggest that in the future, you just pat someone on the back instead of saying anything.”
The Writer shrugged, ordered a lager, and rested his chin on his palm, looking around the room.
“Cheer up,” I said to The Student, “you’ve got good health, you’re—at least for the moment—not in any sort of money woes since you’ve got family who are willing to help you, you’ve got a group of good friends who are here for you. In fact, I’d say you’ve got it pretty good.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“So, how about we play some pool? Get you away from the bar.”
“Oh, I’d rather not play,” he said, “but I’ll watch.”
I ordered my drink. The Writer and I took our beers, set them on one of the circular chrome tables next to the pool table a couple of yards away from the bar, next to the windows looking into the courtyard, and set up the table. “I’ll break,” said The Writer. This was fine with me. I was never good at breaking.
British pool is different than American pool. In the time I have lived in the UK, I have yet to see a pool table with numbered balls. Instead, they have a red set and a yellow set—thankfully the cue ball is the same. The rules for scratches—fouls, as they call it—are slightly different, but, as this is not a manual for the rules of pool, I shall not bore you, Dear Reader, with them. The Writer lined up his shot, studied the triangle of targets, and let loose. With the loud crack of the cue meeting the head ball, the triangle broke apart and The Writer sunk three reds. The yellows scattered around the table at odd angles to the holes. The Writer looked at me, grinned, and shrugged. “Luck, I guess,” he said. He then sunk the rest of the reds in rapid succession. I never got to make a shot.
“Well,” he said, stretching after the five minute game, “that was fun. Up for another one?”
I glared at him.
“That’s a no?”

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Traveler and Religion

Canterbury Cathedral is one of the most impressive buildings that I have seen. If I had to guess why, I would say that it is because the area around it—including the city center—gives off a medieval atmosphere. That’s not to say that there are people dropping dead from the plague left and right—that would be absurd. It is just that one walks around the city center and is surrounded by buildings older than the U.S. by a couple hundred years. I feel sorry for the English, because they are used to this. They are missing out on a legitimate feeling of awe by virtue of living in a country where this is normal. Now, coming from the University’s campus, situated on a hill, the feeling of awe is amplified. The only tall building in view is the Cathedral, and it is quite easy to imagine oneself as a pilgrim on the trek from Oxford or Cambridge or London, or wherever else, clearing a hill and seeing the top of the Cathedral’s tower poking above the town, houses and shops spewing smoke from chimneys.
Then again, I might just be easily impressed.
The grounds of the Cathedral are well-kept, though the building itself is in a nearly constant state of repair—which may be the biggest drawback to being such an old structure. The lawns, courtyards, and gardens are always green and flowering. The grey stone of the Cathedral (those portions which are not hidden behind scaffolding, that is), chiseled by the work of masons over the centuries and decorated with images of kings, saints, and gargoyles, stands as a testament to the importance of religion to humanity over the centuries. If I remember what my professor said from my medieval civilization course, it is a nearly perfect example of what the Gothic architecture was supposed to do: inspire a religious sense of awe in the viewer. Even for someone like myself, who is agnostic at best, the Cathedral does the trick.
Admission is usually £7.50, but as students of the University, The Traveler and I had a free pass in the form of our student IDs. We crossed through the gate, under the carved image of St. Thomas á Becket and made our way into the Cathedral. Adhering to the proper décor of a sense of awe, we kept our conversation to a whisper. “You never struck me as the religious type,” I said to The Traveler, who had been walking around with a very odd, satisfied grin on his face since we passed through the gate.
“I’m not,” he responded.
“Then why do you seem so…” I searched for the word. It eluded me. “With it?”
We passed the tomb of a long-dead bishop.
“There’s something about places of worship,” he said, “and holy sites in general. I can’t really place it. Being religious is the wrong word, since that implies that you have a strict adherence to a singular dogma; being spiritual is the wrong word, since that has a connotation that you go around saying stuff like ‘I am so one with the Deity’ or ‘my chi is really in balance today.’ It’s just…” now it was his turn to search. He stood in front of what I would call the bimah and looked at the podium, the front of which was a golden eagle to represent—I think—John the Evangelist. “Comforting,” he finished. He turned to me, “you know what I’m trying to say?”
I made my way around the choir pews towards the back of the church, where there were around eight stained glass windows depicting miracles. “Not really. I walk into a cathedral like this and I see excessive wealth and the violence perpetrated in the name of God.”
The Traveler thought on this for a bit. “There’s always that, but I would say that such things go into the realm of dogma. I don’t know,” he said, “it’s hard to explain. There’s something that’s separate from that in a place of worship. Something that’s not Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or whatever. Something that just is.”
“That might just be silence,” I said.
“True,” he said. We now stood in front of the place which was the focal point of centuries of pilgrimage, the site where there would have been the shrine to St. Thomas Becket. “That might be what we need most in society: just somewhere where we can go to be quiet and think from time to time. But, then again, it’s a different feeling than I get from just being in a silent place. Take libraries, for example. They’re silent, but I go to a library and I don’t get the same feeling. It’s a fulfilling silence, like you’ve just had a nice warm meal and are looking forward to the cheesecake at desert. That’s what I get out of religion.”
“A warm meal and cheesecake?”
“Funny, isn’t it? Want to go into the gardens?”
“Sure,” I said. We walked out of the cathedral, passed a priest who nodded to us with a welcoming grin—we nodded back. The gardens were neat, tidy, and calming.
“You joke about the warm meal analogy, but that’s the way I see it. A feeling that life’s going to be good after all, that no matter how many times you get down into the doldrums, there’s good in the world, even if it’s just in a nameless silence.” We sat on a bench across from a marker dedicated to an archbishop from the nineteenth century. “I went to a monastery for a week once.”
I arched an eyebrow. “You joined a monastery?”
“No, I just visited for a week. It was free room and board, and I was going through a rough patch—I get those from time to time, where I just feel like the most base, absolute shit on the planet—so I figured I’d give it a shot. There was a British journalist there as well; he stayed in the cell next to mine. We had a vow of silence and everything. Woke up in the morning for Matins, worked in the fields if we felt the need, or just sat around in contemplation. By the second day, the Brit was talking in his sleep, reciting Doctor Who episodes and scores from Premier League matches.”
“And you?” I asked. “Did you walk around with showtunes stuck in your head?”
“No, actually,” he responded. “I meditated about my life. The chanting helped out a lot. I imagined what it would be like to go into a monastery as a young man—cause some of these guys were in their mid-twenties or early thirties—and spend the rest of your life in silence, completely cut off from the rest of the world. The Brit imagined the same thing, I think, but judging from the faces he made at the monks that week, he came to the conclusion that they were insane. I admired them. It takes a lot of self-discipline and -knowledge to know whether or not you can hack it in that sort of condition. I enjoyed that week in the monastery, and I came out of it with a bit of a new perspective on life, but, man, I don’t think I could have done that for my life. At least the Zen monks have koan to think and discuss.”
We fell silent for a while, let the breeze pass by us, listened to the other tourists walk around in their families and chatter to each other in foreign languages. Foreign languages? “Holy shit,” I thought, “I’m a foreigner.” I shivered. “So, a warm meal and self-knowledge,” I said.
The Traveler shrugged. “Yeah. But really, I’d say that, out of all the possible feelings one could have towards religion, that’s not too bad.”