From Grasping the World to Going Home

“3 things,” I told the executive chef.  “#1: I will not be here tomorrow.  I will be in New Jersey.  #2: I can only work 4 days a week for the next 2 weeks–I haven’t packed, I haven’t begun looking for a new job, I haven’t said goodbye to my friends in the area.  #3: My last day will be no later than May 13th.”

The boss–a proud French Swiss chef whose sense of his business responsibilities is at least matched by an esprit de corps and an affection for his employees–ingested all of this in a moment, visibly disliked the taste of it, but repressed a grimace with much consideration for my well-being.  He said, “OK.”

This was shortly before 5:00 pm on Friday.  At this posting–Sunday morning–I have not slept since that time.  After a Friday night shift that didn’t wrap particularly late or run mind and body ragged, I returned to my apartment around 3:45 am.  As I’d told the chef, I was going to New Jersey that very day.

Oh, that’s right–my roommate Ben had warned me via text message that his crew from Western Pennsylvania would be joining us for the weekend.  Like most previous weekends he’d had his friends over, by sheer coincidence I was heading out of town to see mine.

I entered the apartment to the sound of a woman’s laughter, and the lights were on throughout.  2 young men I’d never seen before were sleeping on the couches in the living room.  I walked to Ben’s room to find him and his girlfriend sitting on his bed, with a woman and 2 men clustered in a semicircle on the floor facing towards the door.  Well, I guess they were arranged around the hookah, which at this point in the evening seemed to command their attention.

“Ben, you do have a roommate!” the woman exclaimed.

“So far, we’ve just heard footsteps, or seen a shadow make its way from the front door to the other bedroom, or a stray hand pick up some books and disappear into the dark again,” 1 of the unfamiliar men said.

“Uh, excuse me for a moment,” I said.  They laughed.  I might as well preserve my ambiguous status as long as possible, savor it.  I feel quite comfortable standing apart from company when it’s present.  I want it to be near but don’t mind those stretches when I don’t interact with it, moving in parallel.  It is a source of great satisfaction for it to be near, accessible.  But one’s ultimate desire is to affirm that one is a part of it; after taking off my heavy wool coat I promptly went back.

“I’m Cody,” the 1st of the new men to speak said.  “We were sure Ben didn’t have a roommate.  We figured he just hired extras to make this apartment look more lived-in.”

“Juan,” the other man, proprietor of the hookah, said.

“I’m Sassy!” the light-skinned, dark-haired woman exclaimed.  “It’s nice to finally meet you!”  I returned a smile that must have looked reticent compared to hers.  Sassy?

I often think about dispositions.  According to my AP Psychology teacher, these reveal themselves when we are babies, and they never really change throughout our lives.  Some people are “easy,” some are “difficult.”  I am “slow to warm-up.”  Rather than being readily outgoing and receptive to new people, or ill-tempered and impulsive, I find meeting new people draining, even daunting.  I begin on my guard (though I am well-aware this is unnecessary), needing time and a point of conversational access to “establish relations.”  With better appreciation of what animates another person, I begin to desire deeper connections with others–but rarely right away.  It’s as if you were unable to “get into” a band your friend likes before you heard that 1 single of theirs that gave their characteristic sound all its richness for you.  The metaphor works, but it’s unfortunate: In substance, a band is always less than the sum of its parts.  We can never present ourselves fully, not even to our fellow band members.  This is a beautiful thing, and an irreducible source of dissatisfaction.

As I’d just confirmed with the boss, I’m moving.  I wish I’d gotten to know my roommate of 3 years better.  As I think this, for some reason I recall Zach Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead–possibly because we both like Zach Snyder.  Anyway, the night before the obligatory zombie apocalypse, our heroine and her husband go on a date that consists of spending an evening together and going to bed.  (She is a nurse.)  My roommate works on campus for a board that evaluates the ethical qualifications of social science research conducted through the University; I work in a bar.  (Naturally my job, which I imagine requires less skill and discretion, makes me more money.)  As I wake up in the afternoon and get ready for work, he returns from his normalish working hours; I show up for work at 4:00 pm and don’t leave until some time between 1:00 am and 4:00 am.  Needing some time after work to decompress and stimulate my mind–though not nearly so often by adding to this blog as I’d like–I sometimes don’t go to bed until Ben gets up and leaves for work the next morning.

Are we alienated labor, sorry victims of our inverse work schedules?  We bond well when there’s time, but even when we’re both awake and free I still feel we don’t see each other as much as we should.  I recall a conversation just this Monday with another member of our grad school cohort, Javiera, and her boyfriend, Phil.  This was only the 2nd time I’d seen Phil, and within a minute I found myself elaborating on my recent decision to move back home from Washington: “I have old friends from high school that I still talk to–1 of them almost every day.  When I was an undergraduate at Drew, I forged a 2nd family with my friends there.  I know about half a dozen or so people there who, if I were to be in New Jersey or the New York area with no place to stay, I could give them a call and they’d take me in…”  (Funny story: Remember I said that.)  “…I tried to seek-out people to forge another such family down here in Maryland–and I’ve made some close friends here, which I’m grateful for–but this 3rd family was never achieved.  I see most of these people rarely, and I ache for companionship.  Some of my friends here have expressed this same feeling of loneliness or a lack of local support for their endeavors, but even when we’ve agreed on the nature of the problem somehow we still haven’t done anything about it.  We’ve all retreated into our own projects, and from what I can see we’re unhappier and sometimes less-productive than ever.  There’s something about Washington, DC; you notice it around the holidays.  Everyone goes home–and home isn’t here.  When they do have vacation time and they’re itching to spend time with friends, they leave this area.  I myself go back to New Jersey or New York for several days once a month now.”

Phil was insightful.  “I’ve noticed this trend somewhat with meeting people at this point in my life, and I grew up here.  I don’t know if it’s just about the area.  I think by the time you reach your mid-20s, most people have found those who they want to call close friends.  I don’t think most people are still in the market (as you are) to make close friends.  Your old friends from high school and college have already had a lot of experiences with you and know that you have certain interests and a sense of humor in common with you, and people you meet now at your age don’t necessarily want to make the investment to establish that kind of understanding with someone new.  So, even if you make overtures and other people appreciate them, people you meet casually now just won’t think of you in that category.  If they plan something and they remember you or you happen to be available, great, but that’s something extra.  You won’t be the 1st person they think to call.”

This made a lot of sense.  I looked around the room at Ben’s friends, heard them quote their favorite movies, received clarification on friends present but unconscious in the next room, or those they’d left behind this weekend in the mysterious country of Western Pennsylvania.  Ben was still himself, as he commendably always is, but I sensed or imagined an added serenity about him.  Maybe it was the advanced hour, and the hookah.

Hookahs work by convection, by the way: A burning coal sitting at the top of a tube draws denser cold air down through the tube, where it pulls the smoke from burning tobacco (or even worse substances in some eras) into a small reservoir of water at the bottom, making the smoke clean (relatively-speaking).  Juan offered me a drag on the flavored tobacco; as always, I abstained.  Now I get to be with Ben and his friends and apart.  I wonder sometimes–without feeling any desire to act differently–whether others suspect (wrongly) that I don’t really want their company.

“Wait,” I said shortly after.  “Cody…Juan…Sassy,” I said, pointing to each of them respectively and smugly.  “Yes!  Excellent memory!” Sassy said.  How on Earth did she get that nickname?

“Well, it’s not just you who’s meeting me for the 1st time,” I said.  “I’m meeting Ben’s Friends from Western Pennsylvania!  I’m sure my brain is engaging my now-print phenomenon, ensuring I will remember this evening well…”

I remember more than just that evening well.

Cody, Sassy and Juan gradually filed out for bed, leaving Ben, his girlfriend Kim and myself “alone” in his room.  I made sure to make my exit as stiff, shy and awkward as possible.  Where a friend and his woman are concerned, always observe propriety–whatever that happens to mean for you.

It was about 4:30 am when I left my roommate, having pledged to stay up all night so as to get a head-start going out to New Jersey.  Following a trip to the diner, a long shower and a typically-fitful packing for a mere night or 2 abroad, I left our apartment around 10:00 am.  I figured–naively–that this was a good time to text message my friends in the New Jersey-New York City region about lodgings for Saturday night.  I was returning to Drew University to see Professor Garyth Nair, my old maestro, in his last concert as conductor of the Drew University Chorale.  Mark would be upstate and couldn’t make it; I wouldn’t see him there.  Henry would be heading to Pennsylvania that night and couldn’t make it, though he generously offered his rooms at both Princeton Theological Seminary and his family home nearby for me to stay the night–provided I had my car.  (The car is back on Long Island.)  Eric and wife Kerry would be staying with the in-laws that night and so couldn’t make it; John and girlfriend Annie would be at the concert, but they too would be staying with the in-laws that night and so couldn’t put me up.  I considered asking Steve, who was helping girlfriend Kate recuperate from Saturday’s surgery…but then noted that would obviously be rude and stupid.  By degrees my own words of the Monday past came back to me: “I know about half a dozen or so people there who, if I were to be in New Jersey or the New York area with no place to stay, I could give them a call and they’d take me in.”   Well, it’s my own fault for having a mentality of entitlement.  In a matter of hours I would be a little humbler and way more sleep-deprived.

New Jersey Transit may be my favorite way to travel.  Making my way westbound from the Newark Broad Street transfer station towards Morris County, one passes into Appalachian foothills and lush, tree-covered towns that often still retain a 19th-century feel.  This beautiful densely-populated but beautiful country is barely 20 miles west of Lower Manhattan.  New Jersey is 1 of the prettiest places I’ve ever spent an extended amount of time.  People laugh when I say that, but all this does is reveal how few people are interested in exploring that state.  With a population only a little bigger than New York City, New Jersey weaves its past comfortably and unpretentiously with its present, managing to be at once quaint and commercial.  The physical manifestations of its pre-automobile heritage are everywhere (for which I am grateful, as the State’s highways are often astonishingly badly-designed, especially compared to New York’s relative efficiency).  The maple trees in New Jersey are so pervasive in some places, so vibrant, their leaves hanging on so long in the fall that they’ve sold me on the color yellow.  As I disembarked from the train in Madison, I passed through a massive stone train station, 1 of many in meticulous condition I’ve used in New Jersey.  Madison is a treed town of large downtown buildings and striking churches.  Walking through downtown I passed the hairstylist on Waverly Place and immediately my mind was distracted by a recollection of getting a haircut there; next I smelled a strong smell of ice cream wafting out from an ice cream parlor.  I found myself wandering over to Chatham Booksellers, a used bookstore that is more fantastic than I remembered it.  In my 4 years at Drew I probably only visited it 2 or 3 times.  While visiting in my 1st year as a graduate student I obtained a beautiful, mint-condition set of Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies there for $20, and a rare, mint set of Edward Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with fantastically-detailed renderings of Roman life for $30.

With e-books and kindle people ask why I lug around entire suitcases full of books.  I don’t spend a lot of time wondering if books will “disappear” into our electronic media; all I know is that my shelves are filling-up as are my friends’, and that I love books.  I am never more a shopper than in a bookstore, loving the thought that I can hold in my hands a physical object that could enrich my life or even set it on a different course; this particular used bookstore is as crowded and dubiously-organized as an old professor’s office.  It’s a rare pleasure searching for the books some other reader has mysteriously turned-in, looking for that next set available at a discount.  I think what a pleasure it is to know that I’m spending my own money on these books, and suddenly I feel a surge of gratitude for the bar I’ve left far behind on a busy day.

The written record of the Founders’ debate on the United States Constitution; selected writings of Sigmund Freud and Carl Gustav Jung; Classes, Power and Conflict, an edited volume of sociological theories of repression compiled by Anthony Giddens and David Held, and Peddling Prosperity, Paul Krugman’s old warnings against quick-fix economics for the complex challenges globalization poses to the United States.  Now I have another bag to lug around, and eventually to pack for the return home.  I haven’t the time to read all the books I have now.  I am well-equipped; I am happy.

8:00 pm; the concert starts.  The Drew University Chorale at this time consists of 26 singers, 1 of whom was abroad at the time of the concert; as they launch into Pavel Chesnokov’s “Hvalite Ghospoda s nebes,” they make beautiful music with a sound about 3 times that size.

A word should be said about the Drew University Concert Hall: When it was dedicated in 2005, it was probably 1 of the best acoustic performance spaces in the World.  Professor Nair (who had performance experience with the Westminster Choir, singing under the direction of Leonard Bernstein, and witnessing recordings of great ensembles such as the Berliner Philharmoniker), the architect for the Music School’s share of Drew’s new Arts Center, and the acoustician all collaborated regularly, keeping each other apprised of issues such as the needs for rehearsal space, ingress and egress, and equipment storage; the best means to reflect musical sounds off the floor and walls; and in the architect’s case, where to locate the walls and beams so that the building didn’t collapse.  Professor Nair and the acoustician made full advantage of improved software that allowed them to simulate the sounds that would carry from the stage to different parts of the hall, depending on the angle of the walls or the height of the ceiling, and even the materials used in construction.  (It turns out 1 of the best materials for the floor of a concert hall is a slab of concrete, and 1 of the best materials for a stage is NBA-regulation plywood–a spongy wood that dents easily.  The illustrious Berliner Philharmoniker actually once performed on a stage made out of concrete, which had to be jackhammered and replaced so that the sound from the orchestra didn’t bounce straight up to the ceiling.)

This digression aside, even with a properly-designed concert hall built and finished with the best-possible materials to carry sound to the audience, there is 1 simple element that determines whether a choir or orchestra is audible: The ensemble must make music in key.  If all vocal parts hit and sustain their pitches effectively, their notes have a multiplier effect, making the chord much louder; if several of the singers in a section or (as is quite likely) the violins are out of tune, the dissonant pitches actually interfere with each other, leveling each other out like invisible waves that clash as they move in different directions.  With the same number of performers at the same volume, the sound of an ensemble that is out-of-tune is quieter.

All of Nair’s choir music in this concert was Church music of an Orthodox or Catholic cast; as a good ironist all I care for is what space the sound transports me to.  I was touched to find that the music contained the Drew University that had been my home for 4 years, and that I had remembered for the 6 years following.  It’s no different–though the students are of course all unrecognizable now, and sometimes do seem pretty young.  It came up more than once during the honors for Professor Nair that he had been maestro at Drew for 20 years–and I remembered why I wanted to be a professor in the 1st place.  The prospect of an academic career exploring, writing about discussing (and yes, teaching) big ideas to maturing minds for longer than the lifetime it had taken me to reach my advanced degree was the promise that filled grad school with excitement for me.

Professor Nair closes–as anyone who has done what he loves for his work for a generation might–with an encore that was also a valedictory, expressing satisfaction that, while he could be here with us, there was music.

When I was in high school, my father was my band conductor.  For years I have been insensible–until my concerts would pass, at first without attendance by family and friends–to the loneliness even of my consolations, as I would continue with choir.  I will be coming home; I could avail myself of the opportunity to perform in a band or an orchestra with my father, the sort of familiar habit people sacrifice in order to move hundreds of miles to a new city so as to be at the cutting edge of…I don’t know, some fad they don’t control, mostly.  It may sound like I wax nostalgic, but actually I suspect a lot of people have a vague picture of making a fortune or pursuing a career that will bring them access to power, to “the inside,” to “History,” and as they incrementally set their sights downward they they may shrug-off the familiar things they could have for free, if only they could pursue a career closer to home, that offered mundane rewards.

As John, Annie and I move on to the lavatory, we pass the classroom with the big projector screen where we used to hold Anime Club.  DOA–the Drew Organization of Anime–was, outside the rough-11 hours or so I spent with Chorale, Orchestra and Wind Ensemble, the most time I would spend a week on an official University activity.  We would meet at 7:00 pm every Sunday–Saturday by my senior year–and go as last as 3:00 or 4:00 am in the morning, just watching Japanese cartoons.  We sampled the racy, the funny, the endearing, the violent, and the tragic.  Many anime cycle from 1 such focus to another in ways unassuming Americn audiences might find disturbing.  Then there would be AniMay Day, at the end of the school year–21 hours of Japanimation.  I was always taken by the intense beauty of anime, particularly when watched on the big screen in the dark with a group–my most-Dionysian habit in college.  As we walked past the door, we could see the current members of DOA watching something inside.  (It was after all around 10:15 pm on Saturday.)

After John and Annie excused themselves to travel to the in-laws, I walked back to the door to look-in on what they were watching.  It occurred to me that the Club might watch anime for another 4 or 5 hours.  I thought about going inside, saying I was an old Club member, and sitting down right there to watch some anime–suitcase, tote bags full of books and all.  (I can watch almost any of the stuff, provided it isn’t particularly dirty, or a particularly-vapid cutesy show called Azumanga Daioh.)

Just then a young Club member–They’re all young now, you see–emerged from the door, for a moment blankly staring at me.  “Oh, do you need to use this space?”  I must be an “adult” to him.

“No, I’m just…staring through the window!  Heh heh heh!”  Well-done, me.

He walked on.  I watched for a few more minutes.  This particular anime was a shonen–a coming-of-age man’s anime about a young man coming of age…by walking the Earth and punching life’s problems in the face.  (Bleach and Naruto are among the most-popular and discussed of these in America.)  The young, angry protagonist’s trainer explained to him that the Universe was created from a single mass in the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.  All the Universe is made up of atoms, the exposition continued.  (For the record, that’s not true; the Universe is largely composed of a fascinating and increasingly-understood assortment of primary particles, quite a few of which do not comprise atoms…then there’s the mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which apparently constitute most of the material in the Universe.  The point is that, in reverse of Nikola Tesla’s formulation in The Prestige, our knowledge greatly exceeds our reach.)  Continuing on, the trainer told our young hero that, as his body was also made up of atoms, so was he a cosmos unto himself.  Intuitive knowledge of the physical composition of his body would allow him to explode matter through unification with the physical properties of matter itself.

I find this sort of mysticism-earned-on-the-cheap very tiring these days.  Recall that this blog’s namesake is a person who believes cruelty is the worst thing we do, who disavows that his own beliefs put him in touch with any power that transcends human existence.  Yes, man is the measure–or rather, humanity is the measure.  It’s maintaining otherwise that is arrogant.  There is no objective yardstick; the Universe doesn’t care how we choose to subdivide or temper it, and it doesn’t reveal its essence or its potential to us.  I am not a cosmos unto myself; I am an assemblage of atoms, large to some objects, small to others.

I left the door without entering into the Club.  No 5 hours of anime for me that night.  Anyone I had known in the Drew Organization of Anime had left 3 years before; I knew the venue, but to enter now would be no different than to invite myself into any university anime club where I had no personal contacts.  The old Club was scattered to the winds (or at least about New Jersey); I would enjoy the old pastimes with the right people or not at all.

I arrive at the Nautilus Diner on Route 124 in downtown Madison.  It’s 11:40 at night.  I recognize the man at the register.  I take a seat for 1.  Just over the partition, by the window, I can see the booth I took with 2 girls the week following my orientation at Drew.  It was my first time out alone with these 2 lady friends, and within a few minutes a 27-year-old man introduced himself, sat down with us, and favored 1 of the young women with clever conversation (distracting me all the while with a riddle that turned out to be a trick, a device that turned me on to his game instantly).  They discussed their favorite Ayn Rand novels.  The 27-year-old took us about 2 blocks to the west, to Shanghai Jazz, where their conversation continued.  The jazz music was great, the details of conversation now lost to me, as it often is in the presence of music.  He was charming, and too old.  I stayed with the 2 women until we got back to our dorm.  He left her a long, desperate voicemail late that night.  The next day she gave me a letter expressing her gratitude.  As I recall this I regret not having talked with her more.  I am 27 years old now, and was surrounded by undergraduates as I had this extended recollection.  I felt unconcerned, and uninterested.  I turned to 1 of the books I’m lugging around, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan, a philosophical exploration of massive upsets to conventional knowledge.  (I highly recommend it.)  Strangely-enough, within minutes I am reading the passage about the protagonist of the novel Il deserto dei tartari (The Desert of the Tartars).  “Giovanni Drogo is a man of promise,” stationed at a fortress that guards the Russian marches against the Tartars.  This is a backwater posting, and after 4 years Drogo is ready to retire to the nearby city, trading on his distinguished status as a veteran in good standing while he makes a new life from himself, done now with his dutiful waiting.  But when the time draws near for his discharge, Drogo decides to extend his stay, hoping to “be there” for the catastrophic battle with the Tartars he suspects will come.  Years pass, and he extends his posting longer and longer.  Finally, he dies at an inn a short distance away, as the Tartars finally attack the fortress, the moment of fame for which he deferred everything now stillborn.  Reading this account–about a novel that a hypothetical character in Taleb’s book reads, and subsequently identifies with intensely–I saw that I identify with Taleb’s hypothetical character, and also with Taleb in feeling sympathy for those who pass up countless small opportunities for the grandiose moments that by nature so rarely come to us on our terms.  I am done waiting in Washington; how happy I am to be moving home.

After the Nautilus Diner I walked the few blocks eastward down Route 124 to the Dunkin’ Donuts.  I wondered, in my vulnerable, book-carrying state, if there were a risk of a mugging.  I remember that I’m now projecting concerns from high crime in the Washington, DC area.  During my 4 years at Drew, about 22 miles west of Manhattan, there was just 1 mugging in Madison and 2 bear sightings on campus.  The student who was mugged actually managed to pull the cash out of his wallet and drop it in his pocket before handing the empty wallet to the duped mugger, who retreated to a car.  The young man–a typically-sharp Drew student–promptly called the police from his cell phone (!), and the mugger and his accomplice were caught within minutes.  Only mugging during my time at Drew.  True story.

I arrived at the Madison Dunkin Donuts a little after 2:00 am; the reruns of the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner is playing.  (Jimmy Kimmel was sharp and charming.)  They leave CNN on all day now; when I was an undergraduate they left FOX News on all day.  I would come here with 2 or 4 friends several times a week, after 1:00 am.  We always aimed for the time when the old Donuts were about to be thrown-out; we couldn’t tell the difference, and if we ordered half a dozen we’d get nearly a dozen.  We’d have long philosophical discussions about whether inter-subjective entities like the United States “exist,” and make racy jokes about improbable sex positions.  We’d stay up late because we didn’t want these times to end.  6 years later, in regularly-scheduled installments, they actually haven’t.

Tonight I’m on my own.  But tomorrow I will take the train into New York City and “see a few of the guys.”  Nietzsche was right; nothing is truly unegoistic.  We seek recognition from peers.  When Socrates, Aristophanes, Agathon, Alcibiades and other educated men of their day in the Athens of the Ancients gathered together, they weren’t part of an academic association; they were friends.  Plato Platonized their debate over the nature of love into the dialogue Symposium.  Their answers were subject to peer-review in a sense that is rarely contemplated today; they all “made publication” because they were among friends and seeking to express themselves clearly on this point.

As I write the last of these lines the Sun is coming up.  I often watched the sunrise at Drew–always because I had pulled an all-nighter the night before.  When it wasn’t cold at night in New Jersey (which wasn’t often), I would walk the streets of Madison at night.  Just over 20 miles west of Manhattan, the air is still at night and it’s quiet out.  Back then I had a warm bed to return to on campus; tonight I have nowhere to go.  But I’m home, and I’m happy.  My friends haven’t moved on, they’ve moved off-campus.  No one could take me in tonight, but that’s because they are planting roots in this much-mythologized and -maligned but very-special place.  I am a man of Liberal sentiments, but I am not “at home in the World,” I am at home in New York and New Jersey.  I have no pretenses of objectivity or transcendence; I am what I am, and wandering the streets of Madison en route to the warmth and light of Dunkin’ Donuts and on the lookout for that black bear, I think to myself: If I cannot carry this feeling of completeness with me to a strange place, I will move towards it.


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