Three Academics in a LifeboatMonday, January 20th, 2014
A literature professor, a geneticist and a provost are in a lifeboat.
The provost gets to decide which of the two are to go.
No, not of the three. That would be elementary rather than advanced math.
This provost has long since left simple numbers behind, but retains the necessary spirit of schooling. Thus, he grants each an opportunity to speak about the value of a life, each to her own.
The geneticist, in all due respect, is given the floor, damp as it may be, before the other, and lays out an entire proposal (previously written and conveniently awaiting NIH approval.) With equipment and a five year term, it runs into the millions. The sun rises past cool to pleasant warm. The provost smiles.
Furthermore, the geneticist invoked life, and what she can do to save it. Therefore,it is merely for the sake of collegial form the book lady is given the floor, damper now and cold against the warming sun. With furrowed brow she looks to the horizon. It is far.
She thinks of sails and whales and Dogen. Certainly the later should not be mentioned at all. The provost will not care a whit for thoughts on sight and circles and kingdoms of fish. She inquires instead about the health of his mother. Irritated at the delay but glad of the distraction from too much blue on blue, he says “better. Yes, better. But go on now, go on.”
But her slow draw of breath allowed the slap, slap, slap of water against rubber to edge into the conversation. The sun too edging past pleasant like the hand of a clock, when they still had hands which still went in circles, like that hand slipping past the peak of raised-in-salutation comfort, descending just past perfect. That’s a tense she thought, past perfect. If only I had walked to work and not taken that silly ferry. But she knew better. She knew the past was not usually perfect.
The blue of the sky was relentless. OK, not perfect. Mother is not at her best right now, Provost sighed and conceded. He should have had two cups of coffee by now. He murmured of the virtues of coffee, but the geneticist was chipper. Really, it is for the best you know, with all this UV. You know Greene and Greene, et. al. Usually the Provost would nod here, but said, no.
The geneticist explained DNA repair and what is inimical to such a system. Caffeine and sunlight not being a good combination. This was shown in X top notch university in Y year. The best thought it deserved the Nobel, but it was an especially competitive year. Really a shame. Yes, yes. Now Miss Booker, tell us your tale. This boat won’t hold us all much longer. Please say your piece before we all end up in the belly of a whale.
OK, he knows that one. Not too unexpected. “Sir, who am I to say what my value is. I, by the way, grab that rope there to the starboard, we, uh, you might need it.” Starboard. Didn’t know you sailed. (Port over starboard home. I don’t sail. I read, so I know the POSH from the sodden. What use is that?) Sir, I hold stories and turn them over to see what they are made of as you are turning this rope in your hand. These stories are something to hold onto and something to pass from hand to hand. What stories did your mother tell? What stories do you tell?
Stories… Stories… Straightening. What is the use of stories? We are in mid ocean drifting with no oar and no map, of what damn use is a story!? Give me a scientist! Give me someone useful! Labton, get us out of here! “With what exactly shall I do that? We have NOTHING. No single piece of equipment; not a mass spec., not even a pipette. No direction. No clue. I am a scientist, not a magician.”
The provost expresses despair and hopelessness. Booker volunteers to swim, slipping overboard reciting Eliot and Heaney and verses in a language the others don’t know, don’t even recognized. The geneticist thinks French, the administrator posits Portuguese. He knows some French.
Poetry works well in ocean swells, but best to keep the mouth shut. Just where do you think you are going Booker? Provost bellows. To the island I see behind us in the east. Come if you want, but your boat is drifting the other way. “We need you Booker.”
“Which way is east?”
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