Friday, August 22, 2008

It’s a Long Story

I promised I’ll get to my ultimate point today; I’m just taking the long route to introduce you to one of the funnier characters that was once a part of my life.

My freshman door was co-ed. Thank goodness for this because coming from a testosterone filled childhood home I don’t think I could have done well with an estrogen dominated dorm. I needed men in my life to make me feel at home. When I moved into my room I noted that my roommate and I were surrounded, three rooms of guys on one side and three rooms of guys on the other. Clearly I was destined to be outnumbered by members of the opposite sex.

Mary Ann, my roommate, and I went to dinner the first night with roommates from a few doors down, Mac and Quentin. Our names alone revealed the huge distances between our pairs: Mare and I from working class Philadelphia and Mac and Quentin from well-to-do families and country club life. But we had fun that first night and many others, ending each meal with “food art” session where we took all our leftovers and made them into a conceptual art piece before sending it to the dish room on its tray.

Mac was the first person I met born with a silver spoon in his mouth, except that it wasn’t just a spoon it was an entire place setting. Mac was old money; he didn’t flaunt it. But all his clothes were from Brooks Brothers and he had the latest and greatest of every gadget. He had traveled extensively and been places that I could only dream of seeing. One day he glanced at my brand new boom box, of which I was so proud, and asked, “Why don’t you have a CD player?” CD players were a novelty at the time and expensive. “I can’t afford one, Mac” I answered, “”My family doesn’t have that kind of money.” He wasn’t judgmental; I think he was just naïve.

A couple months into the year Mac and I were eating dinner together, just the two of us. I took my fork in my right hand and stabbed my meat and proceeded to saw it with my knife in my left hand, butchering it as if it had not yet been slain. “What are you doing?” Mac cried.


“Ok, I have to tell you this. You have the worst table manners I have ever seen. You eat like a Neanderthal.”

Mac was a Classics major so I new he spent his days studying ancient civilizations but I seriously doubted he knew anything about the eating habits of Neanderthals. Nonetheless, I was willing to hear him out.

He took my utensils away. “First of all, put your napkin on your lap,” he instructed. “Now, pick up the fork in your left hand, turn it over and place it gently into the meat,” he directed. “Take you knife in your right hand and place it in front of the fork. Now, cut gently.” The lessons continued. I learned about place settings, placing my knife and fork at 4 o’clock to show that I was finished with my meal, dipping my soup spoon away from me (which I refuse to do because it makes no sense), and much more. To Mac’s credit, he did this with great kindness and affection, which was wholly uncharacteristic of him.

Mac was an incredibly funny person. He could impersonate half the people living in our suite on cue, going from one personality to another. He had a great shtick of Elvis singing songs by various rock bands. He would launch into Elvis’ rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” or the Doors’ “Do You Love her Madly.” He constantly had me in stitches.

Mac also had a favorite pastime, making prank phone calls. When I took American Folklore my sophomore year, I decided to do my folk-art collection and analysis on prank phone calls. I had a decent amount of fodder from my escapades with Marie and Sue and I added to our work by interviewing other students. Then I went to Mac and discovered that he had hours of prank phone calls on tape. I had hit the mother lode. I dutifully transcribed the tapes and interviewed Mac about the calls. I entitled the paper something to the effect of “Prank Phone Calls and American Teens: A Durkheimian Analysis.” Doesn’t that sound like a loud of academic B.S.! My hypothesis was that prank phone calls were a deviant behavior that cemented adolescent friendships. Sort of like being a foxhole together except that it was fun. My professor loved it, gave me an A, and asked me for a second copy.

Mac and I continued to be friends throughout college and then both happened to enroll in graduate school at UNC in law and public health, respectively. We made a deal fall semester to have a steady dinner date every Saturday night unless someone with real romantic potential were to turn up suddenly. Under such circumstances, we were each free to break the standing date. After a couple months I started dating someone casually. Mac and I continued to hang out and Mac started calling him my “cuddle man.” “Why don’t you sleep with him?” Mac asked. “I hardly know him,” I responded. “So he is just content to cuddle with you? That’s weird,” Mac observed. “You eat dinner with me every week and don’t get anything. Perhaps I have some other redeeming qualities, huh? Ever think of that?” That was the end of that debate.

After graduation, Mac worked for a year and then decided to move to Prague. I went to visit him a year later and spent three weeks using his place as home base and touring around Eastern Europe. Mac was as fun and funny as ever in his new home, surrounded by a supporting cast of eccentric young ex-pats.

Prague is a lovely city. Virtually untouched in WWII, it’s buildings are beautiful preserved and a lovely reminder of a by-gone time. One day Mac and I were sitting together on the Old Town Square. As I looked at the sights a thought struck me, “All these building have been here for hundreds of years before me and will still be here long after I’m gone.” “You’re being a little egocentric, don’t you think?” Mac said puffing on one of his blasted cigarillos.

But I wasn’t. I was feeling my smallness in the existential sense. I was just one person on a planet with, at the time, nearly 6 billion others, just one of the billions of people who have ever taken a spin on this big blue ball. Oddly, the observation made me feel very peaceful. For some reason it made me realize that I am only one person with a limited sphere of influence and that all I could do, that anyone can do, is their best. I didn’t have to change the world; I merely had to be kind, honest, decent, and loving. It was very liberating.

I just finished reading C.S. Lewis’ Miracles. In reading his work I realize that I could never have earned my Doctor of Philosophy in the actual field of philosophy. I had to read many paragraphs several times to finally understand Lewis’ logic, but I persevered. In it he tells the story of a friend who wrote a play in which the central idea was the protagonist’s pathological fear of trees. The play included other side stories as well and, when he finished it, sent it to someone for comment. The critic responded, “ … cut out those bits of padding about the trees.” Lewis’ point is that we are all part of a very long story, God’s story, one with a complicated plot.

I was thinking about all this last night while I was waiting for sleep. Thinking about Mac and our unlikely friendship, that moment on the Old Town Square in Prague, and God’s long story. I thought that perhaps to try and figure out our place in the world, in the history of the world is like looking at one Polaroid photo and trying to construct an entire life from that one picture. It’s just not possible. And I don’t think it is possible for us to know or even have an inkling of why we are here, individually or collectively. All we know is, we are here for now. And that just needs to be enough to inspire us to be the best that we can be for each other and ourselves.

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