Live from Cairoston

On Acknowledgments

And the nights stream by, wax after wane and bitter cold after silent still midnight. Chained to my bench with a dripping pipette, fighting the demons that hover, denigrating my endeavor, ridiculing my plight. But no! When doubt invades me I escape to Lamar Soutter, and between the stacks of books and writ I reach out for the proud black bound volumes – theses of those who have become. From their success I derive some hope for another moon of searching, armored with sanguine visits to defenses, moments of Christening, knighting, that reestablish my faith in the day to come.

It was not always like this, I’d like you to know. Before rock and mortar there were rolling fields and roaming cows and a long trail of oak trees stretching up to an asylum. As a lad I played with the milky beasts below … as an adult, I joined the mental ones above. My world changed up there … but the pursuits that lead me to that cold room never ceased. Questions bigger than words, and mysteries that gnaw at your being, never to be solved, and pain others would never know.

They set me free a few years later. I stepped out under the sun again and saw them building something below. A hospital they said, where people come to be cured, and where students learn how to cure. Cure?! Ah! This is what I’m after then, it must be so. Pursuing answers must be a disease, an ailment, why else would they have strapped me that cold night, and sentenced me to the tower? I shan’t search for answers, but for a cure to heal my asking!

Yet, since when do we discover what we set out for? “Seduced by a quest only for fate to confess in jest, to a different secret that just had to be told.” I shall tell you here the secret I have learned, from countless readings of the Acknowledgment page. There’s a hidden message in each and every one of them, hiding behind the I’d like to thank mum and without your support and you believed in me and I never thought I could … between the lines and behind the words, the secret silently is and the truth calmly lies.

A shudder of terror befell me when I first saw it. Have you ever silently combed your hair in the mirror, before realizing a stranger standing in the back? I dropped the book, and I fell to my knees.

My old man told me once when I was nine, that he’d take me hunting when I was ten. But death could care less about such promises. I wonder if he had answers to my questions. Or better yet, I wonder if he had lived if I would even care to ask. I keep on telling my son that he has what it takes to be a better dad that I was. His son turned nine last year and I told him that he’s gotta make a big fuss about em turnin’ ten. People don’t do any of those initiation rites anymore. Kids just seamlessly move from stage to stage until the world around them does the slapping and bone breaking. We don’t tell them anymore where their family came from, who killed what or saved whom when. No more stories and stuff. No more roots to keep you on your feet when the goin gets tough. Maybe it’s the grandfather who should initiate the grandson. Boy, I can’t wait to graduate and be a better grandpa.

I once read this essay by a neuroscientist. If memory serves me she was saying that graduate students go through a traumatic, but predictable course until they graduate. First they’re all passionate, giddy and honeymoonish when they join a lab. Then they realize that their project is going nowhere, and time stops. Then, around year four (or forty in my case … I hope) something happens, as if out of nowhere. A result appears … a passage to freedom! At that stage, the student gets goin again, but far from giddy … they function like a machine cranking out what needs to be cranked. They do what needs to be done.

I was saying … what was I saying? Yes … no, no not that … I don’t know … but kids have to go through an initiation of sorts. Oh yes! I remember … the secret. I know the secret. I see it in every acknowledgment. It’s hidden and it’s scary. Have you ever heard of spontaneous combustion? Boy, I remember reading about it while I was up there … for two whole years I couldn’t sleep and always walked with a feeling deep in my gut that I’d burst into flames! That doesn’t happen anymore. Instead, sometimes I swear that my heart will stop pounding. There’s this feeling as if I could make it stop and that, by mistake, I’ll do just that. But this isn’t about heart attacks … I was talking about fire. I once read this somewhere, I never understood the details, but there’s this ancient debate between philosophers. When cotton meets a flame, does the flame cause the cotton to burst in flames, or is it just an illusion. There’re these philosophers that say that it’s just a correlation, and the cotton caught fire by another, deeper cause. They call it vicarious causation. Yes, that’s the word … maybe even spooky causation? I’m not sure … but I think that’s the word.

In any case, I was saying this because I was saying that parents need initiation rites. They need to be graduate students and wear cotton lab coats. No, no … urgh! Kids need to experience the black hole of graduate school. Yes, that the thing! It’s scary. It’s the secret hidden in acknowledgments. Vicarious graduation. It’s spooky!

We always discover something else on our way to discover what we’re after. But if you stick to it long enough, you still discover what you’re after. I did find me cure. I could close my eyes now and measure my glucose, hormones and neurotransmitters. I know when my body will start to act up and ask questions, so I rush for a coffee, a nap or a quicky. Yes, I’m old but you gotta keep the machine in equilibrium, or else its starts to ask those questions. But it took a long, long time. I’m the oldest student you’ll never meet around here. I’m the stranger at the back of the room that’ll make you doubt yourself … is that a distant relative attending my defense? I’m the old man looking you in the eye with a tear in mine as you stand in your gown … the breath down your neck as you sit and read. My name is Ruth, and maybe one day we’ll get us some tea.

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