Epsilon Closer

So was it nothing more than two ships passing under cloak of darkness?

The mills of academia grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small. Every aspect of the college continued the process of "pressing with stones" hoping I would shut my trap. The students, faculty and especially Admin all essayed to wear me down. My policy of expecting collegiate level behavior was now drawing heat from all quarters.

Every once in a while I would think of She from the previous year. Lots of wondering. Wondering who She really was, wondering how a person genuinely interested in learning popped up at my school, wondering why I experienced all sorts of strange new sensations in her presence. Wondering why these "what if's" sprang to mind just like they did when I was 16 years old. Wondering how real reality really is. And yes, wondering if She was available, whatever that means in our modern world.

Or if She ever wondered herself.

In-service training sessions! How those words still make me so glad to have forsworn anal sex and get out of the ed-biz. Our school took a page from Cotton Mather's playbook and found fiendish delight in making us sit through two eight-hours days of this claptrap at the start of each new term. Very painful. Agonizing, even.

The college president continued to throw vitriol in our faces, his lips unloosened now, for here he had us all under lock and key: he even took roll-call, the first time since junior high for me. With a captive audience before him, he illustrated just how feeble the word pontificate is. It's not good for one's morals to witness illiteracy, Oscar Wilde might have quipped.

I remember when they hired our Colonel Klink. It usually takes several months for the search, followed by interviews with the Chancellor, the Board of Trustees, the local adminstrators and faculty, and finally the Babbittry who direct our town: bank presidents, Rotarians, executives, realtors, factory owners, etc. In short, any and all who confuse job training with an education.

After all this, they had it narrowed down to three candidates. I made a prediction to my colleagues who were surprised at my audacity to voice it aloud. Somehow these frightened rabbits formed the idea that faculty are the least important part of a college and should be seen but not heard.

Of the three candidates, one had a Ph.D. in botany, the next a Ph.D. in history, and the third an M.S. in education.

You don't need me to report how it turned out.

So, back to the in-service training. There we are, early January, one-hundred faculty, all wishing we each had one of those little inflatable donuts to sit upon while we listened to this vapid buffoon (who was clueless about academia, but was a close personal friend of Jesus). After this ninny concluded his tepid oration, then the real fun began. You'd never guess that we faculty were supposedly hired according to professional merit. And could have used these precious two days preparing lessons for the new crowd.

But no, in its infinite wisdom, Admin filled our days with (and I am not making any of this up):
  • A theater troop brought in from the Twin Cities at several thousand dollars expense to put on skits explaining that we should never use the word "gal," because it means "vagina."
  • A half-day safety session by a leading expert in the field, with the only point being that it's not healthy to swallow toxic fluids. With a two hour movie on the subject included free of charge to make sure the slower ones got the point. As for me, the entire day just made me want to imbibe anything; I would have gladly followed Socrates' lead.
  • An insipid ventriloquist from Kansas (again, remunerated in bills bearing the visage of Grover Cleveland) whose dummy, Wisecracking Woodie, explained that it's nice to be nice to people. Try to imagine Edgar Bergen reading the New York City phone book and you'll get an idea of his skills. The fucker's M.O. was hilarious! In order to conceal the fact his lips were flapping like crazy, he hid them behind a giant microphone terminating in a fuzzy ball. Very convincing. Kind of like Kitten Natividad wearing a tank top.
  • Parlor games to get to know one another. I haven't had such fun since Whitey's birthday party in the second grade! But the goddamned college stinted us on paper hats and blow-ticklers.
  • A piper, to remind us that there are foreign countries, and that foreigners live in them. I never knew a bagpipe (evocative word, that) could actually be played out of tune. Sexy kilt on the guy, though. I wanted to peep underneath.
Incidentally, after having taken my turn in the barrel for too many years and finally bailing out, I heard that Admin really outdid itself in the next in-service training session: half a day devoted to aromatherapy, and another half-day to stress-free cooking.

To put it all in perspective, consider this. The average instructor's salary was roughly $40 an hour.  So, each in-service day accounted for $320. Then times two for both glorious sessions, yielding $640 per capita. Now multiply by 100 for the number of faculty members undergoing group lobotomies. Then double again, for twice a year.

$128,000 in toto, not including Wisecracking Woodie's honorarium. 

A hefty fee to pay, but I'm sure our students got their money's worth in our increased productivity.

So picture me twitching though this final session wondering what sort of life I had gotten myself into. I couldn't bear much more, so ducked out ostensibly to take a lavatory break, really just an excuse to pop in a wad of Copenhagen and cry. Oh Isaac, forgive us for being so weak...

Dawdling as much as possible without the posted guards getting suspicious, I made a quick run to the mail room, which at least gave the appearance of carrying on scholastic work.

The class rosters had just been distributed. I grabbed my stack, just to have something to read when returning to the somnolent session still dragging on in the conference center.

Settling back to make the best of the lingering afternoon, I looked over the rosters to see if there was anyone I recognized. At my school, it was not uncommon for the same name appear three or more terms running in the same course. If at first you fail, try, try again, you know. More rare was seeing a student who had previously passed with flying colors return for even more mathematics in another course. 

So, my head whipped to the page again and I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. 

The droning from the speaker's podium receded as I double-checked the student list for my Precalculus course to see whether I had imagined this or not.

No, it was true! A name glowed in the dark, a name I found and still find so fascinating. A name to conjure with. And a rescue from the verbal waterboarding being dished out in the conference center just now. Something to dream on. I was the only galley slave smiling just then.

Somehow we all survived that Friday and were finally permitted to get on with preparing for the new semester. But in my case, this weekend before the first class session had me wondering yet again, continually.

Monday: a thrill to waltz into class and see that comprehending face again. Best of all, as a day-class this time, there were 63 more opportunities to look, interact, teach, learn and simply enjoy. Discussing mathematics is truly an amorous occupation.

I thought of how right Galileo, one of my perpetual influences, was. In his very first term as a professor of mathematics at the University of Pisa, he ran afoul of his Admin for refusing to wear the traditional academic gown. Indeed, he even had his salary docked for writing a lengthy and witty poem decrying the practice. From the excellent biography by Dava Sobel, Galileo's Daughter, we learn:
Any kind of clothing got in the way of men's and women's frank appraisals of each other's attributes, he argued in ribald rhyme, while professional uniforms hid the true merits of character under a cloak of social standing. Worse, the dignity of the professor's gown barred him from the brothel, denying him the evil pleasures of whoring, while resigning him to the equally sinful solace of this own hands.
A man after my own heart: aroused by mathematics, inflamed by the senses, finding equal virtue in both.

For indeed, this spring the air turned warm early and the sun shone continually. I'm not waxing poetic by the way, but merely reporting that heavy winter coats were no longer required. A very practical state of affairs.

Thus, the one day that She sported a sort of Gypsy skirt, I will confess to following Galileo's lead. My eyes strayed.

This was no doubt the only time in my life I rued the end of a term. I had become quite addicted to wondering. But here was May, and time to sign off. I really was quite distraught.

An awkward good-bye, a few guarded emails passed, and then for me it was back to living a lie.

I bought a new Tanglewood guitar that week, and will always associate it with wondering about those two ships in the night whenever I strum a chord and admire its great beauty. Many people think it's damn near impossible to play a song in a new key without the aid of a capo.

I don't believe in capos, even if it means more work. I can play in a new key.

Next installment: In Search of Nuit

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