Friday, February 07, 2003

9:30am. On my hands and knees with the key, I spotted the lock. The lock sat in the bootom corner of the glass and chrome door, satisfied no doubt by the fact that none could enter without first kneeling.
I rose and entered an enormous glass cube, at least three stories tall, and proceeded to play with the buttons controlling the rise and fall of the retractable shades on every side. Eventually, my fellowee arrived. I found him teaching me about the coast of Senegal, the vulnerability of its biodervity and the poverty of its people. He seemed to come from somewhere farther away than anything I have known, and I felt right meeting him in the commonly foreign ground of this unearthly glass cube-room. We discussed his presentation, and then he rehearsed and I critiqued, excited and a slightly set off firm footing by the chasm of differences that seemed to separate us--nonetheless, the experience seemed astoundingly successful.
"I love to make maps. This is what I love to do in life. Making maps every day."
An hour later, I had met Jose. His statement seemed kind of comical to me. What quirky interests people have. What inspires a passion for cartography?
Then he started to take me through his presentation. Images of 70,000 buildings destroyed, entire cities erased, 50,000 people killed by landslides in Venezuela in 1999. Venezuela's mountains sliding into the sea. And then he showed me 3-d zoning maps he had spent months constructing; maps that revealed where the most landslide-endangered areas were; maps that could deflect the fate of ill-placed cities and direct the safe growth of new homes.
I was not prepared for this. Jose is casual, uncomfortable with his (generally strong) English, fond of Michael Jackson jokes, and passionate about making maps with a tone of a passionate stamp collector or bird-watcher. He wears no signs of his own heroism. He just likes maps. A lot.
I tell him that his presentation is strong, and that his project is important, will get people excited.
"Excited," Jose smiles wryly. "This is the American morbosity. Morbosity--I don't know what it is in English, but like watching a tiger killing its meal, or like when the landslides happen in Venezuela, the reporters come in helicopters with cameras and crews and go to the straight to the destroyed cities and talk to the dying people and get back in their helicopters and leave."

I went to appeal a grade today from last semester. That was a mistake. My professor, who had never read any of my work, skimmed my final exam as graded by the TA, and told me that she agreed with my TA's garde. That I had not gotten the key point accross. I showed her my thesis that addressed it, and the key passages that supported it, she would not be convinced. I asked her if she would be willing to go over it carefully at some point and make specific comments on how I might improve in the future. She said that she would be able to do little more, short of rewriting the paper for me.
Then she decided to try to make me feel better. "You shouldn't worry about this. A B isn't so bad. You're a science person, right?"
"I don't really think that's fair" I replied.
"What's you're major then?" "Neuroscience. But I've taken numerous advanced history classes including a senior seminar and performed very well in them. In fact, this is the first B I have received."
"Well I think that's very unfortunate. You deserved to hear the warning signs sooner. But you shouldn't worry. This is probably you're first experience analyzing canonnical writers, and it is a skill that takes time to develop. And you've done a highly...adequate job."
I have been upset at this for some time--but looking back with clearer head some ten hours later, it occurs to me that much of the very positive feedback I have gotten on papers here has proved equally functionless, even if ego-padding is easier to take than assaults on my aggregate writing and analytical skills. I have, however, taken one writing intensive course where I felt challenged specifically and constructively--I went to that professor immediately after this meeting, and enlisted her to help me develop my writing skills, which I feel have atrophied along with my writer's-ego. We begin with a simple prescription. Practice.

I had seen them all before, but only in sequence. Now they surrounded me, bathing on their well-lighted white-wall mounts. I stood in the center, and lived through four months of Lucas's eyes in a single moment. Or at least I tried. I then stepped very close, and put my face near each photo--overwhelmed, knowing that he had known the out-of-focus smudge on the sidewalk as intimately as the rip in the old man's pants and the finely focused curve of his crooked smile and he had loved them all for months and months alone in the dark. I smiled deeply and cried.