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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"Light", Chapter 22: Dinner and Whine

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It wasn’t the best weekend I’d ever had. Closer to the worst, actually. I spent most of it in my room playing music to drown out the numb feeling that had overtaken me. I tried ringing Amada three times on Saturday morning, but she didn’t answer. What the hell is it with women anyway? Can’t they just get pissed off and get it out of their system like men do? I think I mentioned the bit about me being a sexist bastard. That was one more thing to beat myself up about as I lay there staring at the ceiling.

It was getting close to the end of the semester, and there were major assignments due in several subjects. But I just couldn’t get into the study. I would drag myself off the bed and sit down at my desk, but after opening the books I’d just end up staring out of the window. I figured It’d have to be a last minute job for all of them. It wasn’t much consolation that there were exams coming up two weeks after the assignment deadlines, and I hadn’t done a thing about preparing for those.

Then there was dinner with the Doc. Il Duce Blackpool had these ridiculous dinners every Sunday night with students and certain staff members. It went floor by floor, and everyone got invited once a year. At this time it just happened to be my turn, so I had an invite. To be honest I was tempted to give the whole thing a miss, given my previous run-in with the Bearded One. The Doc gave me the creeps. But the more I thought about it the more I figured that not going would make it look like I was scared of him. 

Which I was, of course. I mean, there was just something about the guy. And I know I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. His explosive temper and schoolboy tantrums were legendary around campus.

So when Sunday evening rolled around, I went. Given my state of mind, this wasn’t the brightest idea, as I was still brooding in a cesspool of my own self-loathing. Given the Doc’s presence, now there would be two of us to beat up on me.

I put on my stupid academic gown and headed for Room 318. The academic gown was worn for formal affairs at the Hall, possibly to satisfy some weird vamp sexual fetish of the uni administrators. I sure couldn’t figure out any other purpose for it. 

Room 318 was specially designated for the Doc’s ego-inflating dinners. What happened at such gatherings, of course, was that everyone would sit around looking ridiculous in formal attire, chewing on rubbery Edwards Hall steak while sipping white wine that tasted like it had been recycled from the latrines. 

Okay. So I was in a bad mood. 

I entered the room, which was resplendent in suitably bland, ochre-brown brick with matching off-brown curtains. In other words it was decorated just like every other room at the Hall. I was five minutes late and immediately saw that I was the last one of the six invited guests to arrive. That was another mistake. Being late meant was that I had to sit right next to the Doc, because everyone else had quite conveniently avoided the vacant position to his right. His wife, whose name I never could remember, sat to his left. This was very kind of her as it meant only one student had to sit next to Blackpool. 

I said “G’day”, and was greeted with several replies. My eyes met Blackpool’s for a micro-second, and they were surprisingly indifferent to my existence. I should have known. He probably went off at people half a dozen times a week. Perhaps he’d completely forgotten his utterly insane verbal outburst from the month before, when I’d asked about the possibility of not consuming the bland animal carcasses they served up at the Hall.

My slight sense of relief was short-lived, for sitting two seats away from Blackpool was King Dork himself, Frank Johns. Yes, that meant that I was about to be sandwiched in between the most boring man alive, and the Osama Bin Laden lookalike that ran Edwards Hall. I sat down, faking a smile.

“Your fly is undone,” Frank announced drably. He was staring right down, too. There was some nervous laughter.

“Nice of you to notice,” I quipped. Unlike Frank, who had announced it to the entire gathering, my retort was whispered back. I zipped up.

“A minor objection, I’m sure,” Blackpool chirped at my expense. He’d already been drinking, which was his second favorite pastime after imitating exploding artillery.

I looked around at the others. There was Allison Davies, a dumpy, annoying, perpetually stoned arts student; Warren Chen, a slightly older postgrad student from China; Lisa Sidebottom, another Arts student with weird, wavy hair; and Bernd Olsen, the impossibly quiet German geology major who lived opposite me. Despite their close physical proximity to my part of the Hall, I didn’t know any of them particularly well. Students at Edwards Hall tended to form cliques. Except, that is, for Frank Johns, who was just too annoying to be welcomed by anyone. I could tell that nobody was particularly overjoyed to be there. Then they rolled out the food, and it was considerably better than the standard Hall fair. That, combined with the cheap grog, lightened the spirits after a while.

The Doc raised his glass like he was the King of England or something.

“To a wonderful second semester!”

We all humoured him and returned the gesture. 

The rest of the evening was uneventful. That was, until Warren Chen made a fateful quip about the University facing West, and how that was bad feng shui. 

“In China we always make sure our buildings are constructed according to the principles of the tao.”

“Forgive me for asking, but what’s the tao?” Allison Davies asked.

“The tao is the mysterious force that governs all life and prosperity. According to traditional Chinese culture, life and mind itself cannot be separated from the will of Heaven, or the unseen forces that we common mortals are not privy too. However, to help us out, our great sage Lao Zi wrote the Tao de Ching over two millennia ago, which teaches us how to live in harmony with the divine essence of all things.”

I’m not sure how it got to that point, but when it did the Doc, who was well and truly pissed by this time, couldn’t resist the opportunity to bulldoze a perspective which differed from his own.

“Fortunately this is not China, oh great Grasshopper. And we don’t have to worry about all that pre-civilisational superstition.”

The Doc’s wife shot him a dirty look, and the rest of us just cringed. Chen looked suitably offended, but to his credit bit his tongue. 

“I see.”

But Blackpool hadn’t yet used up his daily quota of obnoxiousness.

“I appreciate your cultural proclivities Warren, but this is a university, and thank God we have constructed the campus according to the principles of sound engineering, and of course a little aesthetic appreciation. And I do say that as a man with a PhD in engineering science.”

He then raised his glass like a man who had never had an opinion challenged in the entire previous three decades of his life; which was precisely how long he’d been the manager of the Hall. We all picked up and made a toast to something or other; quite possibly the Doc’s intolerance. 

“Thank God, indeed!” I quipped. I have no idea what possessed me to say this, but I confess there was more than a little derision in my words.

The Doc turned towards me, as if gazing upon an annoying mosquito that was buzzing about his ear.

“And what has God got to do with anything?”

“Just saying, you know. I mean the irony of the phrase. Could be something Freudian in it. Like a slip of the tongue. Freud suggested that such things betrayed our deeper sentiments, um, if I understand him correctly.”

“Balderdash! I know what I mean when I say what I mean!” The Doc was spitting bits of meat all over the table. “Freud has been assigned to the dust bin of science, thoroughly trashed by advances in neuroscience which pinpoint the fact that thought emerges from neural activity, not some ridiculous, immeasurable unconscious!” 

Blackpool’s face was going even redder than the alcohol had already made it. But the alcohol had given me a little courage too.”

“Um, I’m not sure if that is true.” I was looking him right in the eye. I knew it was my anger speaking, but I was on a roll, and I wasn’t going to back down. This topic was precisely what I’d spent half the semester thinking about. I continued.

“There is, after all, an explanatory gap in neuroscience, which mirrors the hard question in consciousness studies. Identifying the neural correlates of thought is one thing, explaining the source of consciousness is another altogether.”

“Yes, he’s right!” Warren Chen chimed in. He was suddenly emboldened by my own courage. Or was it my own stupidity. “Also, the Ganzfeld experiments provide strong evidence for the existence of telepathy, which suggests that the mind is not confined to the brain.”

“What is this, the New Age Convention!?” Blackpool stormed. The TNT was about to explode.

“Of course that’s just hypothetical, and the experiments require further replication,” Chen said hurriedly, and gently. “I respect that you are a man of science, and there is nothing like hard science. I am a physics major, after all.” Chen was probably in his late twenties, and he had better diplomatic skills than I. And just as well. With a bit of clever ego-rubbing, he managed to disarm Blackpool’s detonator, and turn the conversation towards other more mundane matters. But Blackpool never looked at me again for the rest of the evening. Eventually I was able to excuse myself, and scampered out of the door.

When I got back to my room, I noticed that I had a terrible headache. In fact I felt incredibly tired, and just slightly ill. The evening had left me with a disturbed feeling that I could not shake. I took a shower and went to bed.

It was just before I fell asleep that I realised that this was precisely the feeling that had overcome me the last time I’d had a run-in with the Doc.

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