trying to take a drink from a fire hose…

by bam

dispatch from 02139 (in which i herewith make the distinction between a “dispatch,” that is, a verbal  post card, reporting from the front, and a “meander,” the more typical musing from the chair. in this year of thinking sumptuously we will need a mix of both, and this week was so over-upholstered, it requires dispatch from which meander might be launched….)

loping down the cobblestones of cambridge last eve, the long tall fellow with whom i’ve entwined my life and i were volleying utterances back and forth in between the huffing and puffing that comes when dashing home from the theatre in attempt to a.) catch the president make his second-round acceptance speech, and b.) duly stop the clock on the babysitter’s tally.

in other words, we were speeding toward home, talking.

the subject at hand was how very dizzying this week has been, how “shopping” classes — a harvard eccentricity in which professors put on “the best of” lectures, and students, accustomed to cherry-picking the choices in their life, dash into lecture halls or seminar rooms, listen for as long as their attention holds, then vote nay or yea, either staying put (thus declaring they’ll take the course) or up and skedaddling (thereby letting the prof know that the dog-and-pony theatrics did not meet unspoken expectation) — had been at once exhausting and exhilarating.

i’d just said that i had looked forward all the dizzying day to sitting quietly in the theatre, the famed cambridge-based american repertory theatre (A.R.T.), absorbing all that needed to be absorbed.

but instead of quiet, a landscape for contemplation, the play that had just unfolded before our eyes, “marie antoinette,” by hyperkinetic and brilliant playwright david adjmi (he was there to talk to us, along with the director, as we sipped prosecco and nibbled blanched broccoli in the lobby before the play), had been one of full-throttle sensory explosion (in the most glorious way), and rather than theatre as respite, the evening had added yet another massive volume of thought and image to sift through.

to that, the lanky fellow replied, “this whole thing is like trying to take a drink from a fire hose.”


i am gulping as fast as i can. and still, my face, my front, right down to the tips of my yellow rubber rain boots, is soaked with all that i can’t  fit into my stretched-wide-open maw.

i do believe i’m missing 98 percent of what’s gushing from the eternal hose. or so it feels.

and that’s only because here in the city of infinite wellspring it comes so fast, so furiously, you’d need a hippopotamus’ great vast jaw to open wide and swallow.

besides taking in trips to thoreau’s walden pond, and a glorious slice of atlantic coast called crane’s beach, and an apple orchard in ipswich where cider donuts were plopping down in doughy life-preserver Os, then floating along a hot oil river till crisped to sugar-and-cinnamon-y perfection, this week was all about taking to the classroom.

our brave little soldier was first up, marching to the bus stop on a rainy morn, declaring, “i don’t want a helicopter mom, i’ll do this myself.”

and so aboard the bus he climbed, the purple cow bus, as it’s so designated. and off he went for the next nine hours. we scooped him up at day’s end from a basketball court where he was the only white kid playing among a forest of sky-high shooters.

he beamed, as did they, when they reported to us that it had been revealed that our not-yet-5-foot shooter could keep up with the best of ’em.

bumping home in the back seat of our cambridge mobile, he went on to declare at least one teacher “awesome,” and was astonished to find the one kid he knows at the school somehow magically made his way into every one of our little guy’s classes. so, all in all, except for the english teacher he thinks is “super tough,” it was an A+ start to his rendition of this adventure.

while he was off being brave, his mama found her heart near pounding through her chest as she took a seat in the far back of her first harvard lecture hall.

wasn’t long till i distinguished myself as the only one in the 300 seats of paul farmer’s global health class who curiously pulled out a pen. i was the odd scritch-scratch amid a sea of click-clack-clicks, as the 18-year-olds madly pound out notes on laptops, and toss curious glances at that archaic instrument, the stick pen.

the school week didn’t end before handing me rejection no. 2 from yet another harvard prof, who refused to let a silver hair sit in on her graduate-level seminar, “the major works of american civilization.” but, touché, i was in the room, pulled right up to the conference table for the whole first two-hour slot, long enough to snare a reading list and syllabus so i can play along at home.

by week’s end it seems i’ve — let me grab my fingers and begin the course count — “ethical reasoning 22: justice,” with rockstar legal thinker michael sandel (that’s the classroom pictured up above, if you can believe, and sandel emerged, bounding, as the chandeliers brightened, from the depths of a sunken staircase on stage, after class opened with a shake-the-rafters rock-anthem video); narrative non-fiction, a seminar for nieman fellows and the occasional tagalong (c’est moi); “modern spiritual pioneers and religious revolutionaries,” in which we explore the lives of leo tolstoy, mohandas gandhi, lech walesa, thich nhat hahn, dorothy day, abraham joshua heschel and martin luther king; rockstar global health doc paul farmer’s “case studies in global health: biosocial perspectives,” in which i wind up either enlisting in the peace corps or finally heading off to med school to save the world;  the hilarious could-be-sit-com “science and cooking: from haute cuisine to the science of soft matter,” in which rockstar chefs jet in from around the world for tuesday lectures, including the likes of much-famed ferran adria (from el bulli in spain), bill yosses (white house pastry chef), dan barber (blue hill), and wylie dufresne (wd-50).

take a breath. it’s still only tuesday aftenoon.

we then dash down to rockefeller hall at the div school, for “virginia woolf and religion,” in which we read at least one woolf novel per week, and present a five-page paper for all the class to critique.

since i’ve been unceremoniously dumped from two classes, poetry and religion, and the major works of american civilization, i intend to homeschool my little old self in the case of those two.

and — why stop when on a cerebral binge? — i’ve a long list of nooks and crannies to explore, among them grolier poetry book shop, inc., the longest-surviving poetry-only book store in america. cross my heart, i’ll soon trek to thoreau’s cabin, at the end of a heavenly trail that traces the shores of walden pond. and i do hope to spend a starry night in the hermitage in newbury that is the retreat house of the monastery just down the lane here in cambridge.

so so very much on the sumptuous list.

but what of the glories that seep in through the cracks, at unexpected moments and places, such as the school bus stop where i’ve met a parisian single mum who founded the french equivalent of city year (a year of do-goodery for kids from 16 to 22), and who is here alone with two kids for a full fellowship at harvard’s kennedy school of government? or the elegant finance professor, just back from a year in china, who each morning strolls in his crisp white shirt and chapeau, and is teaching me the ways of elite chinese 18-year-olds who, at every turn, buck the communist party’s so-called restrictions?

and what about the wife of a long-ago nieman fellow who has invited us into her painting studio and informed me that back in 1981 the tagalong of the fellow was known as the “co-vivante,” instead of the more pedestrian “affiliate,” our current official tag?

it is dizzyingly much. but not too much. because i stay up late to sift through my day’s notes, and i bend my knee and ask for strength whenever i need. i’ve already found my place, near the book of petitions at st. paul’s, where i venture when ready for refueling.

i must dash to scoop up soccer shorts off a cambridge front porch, because even amid all the thinking, there is soccer to be played. but before i go, i’ll add a new chair feature, the word of the week: last night, while listening to adjmi, the playwright, he mentioned something about a “quiddity,” a word that caught my ear, made me lunge for my pen, a word i’ve not yet had a chance to look up. (though i just did, and it means “the essence of a thing,” a word i’m sure i’ll put to great good use.)

so that’s the quiddity of it all, from here in 02139, at the end of — could it be — a mere week three. only 45 left to go. perhaps by autumn’s end, i’ll have managed to get my thirsty gullet moist in the rushing, gushing fire hose.

do please forgive the book report of a posting, and know that i write not to wow a single one of you, but with an innocent’s sense of over-exuberance, and pinch-me-is-this-real. i’ve a mama or two who want to know every bit of reporting from here on the front, and this one’s for both of them. and you and you and you…..

i intend to introduce thought of the week, as well, but now i must dash, and then i’ll need to scroll through my notes to find the one juiciest morsel worth laying out on the table…..

so the question of the week is simply this: what’s your word of the week? or big idea of the day??