Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Exit Past Through Doors on Right

There’s an old zen story[1] [2], A man asks a zen master what the key to happiness is. The master says, “Grandfather dies, father dies, son dies.” The man expresses his dissatisfaction with this answer and the master replies, “This is happiness, for each must happen, but any other order is tragedy.”

By that standard, 2011 was not a happy year. I started writing this to mention the best things of 2011, both within that my proximate social sphere and the world at large, but as I struggled with it, I came to the realization that couldn't reconcile everything.

During my first year at The Academy, there was a second class (junior) named Courtney Davidson. The second classes are the ones primarily in charge of pushing the plebes (Freshmen); ensuring they know their rates, don’t cut any corners, and generally keep in line. In this role, Davidson excelled. She excelled in a lot of roles. She played basketball fiercely[3], held division command position during her first class (senior) year[4], and as near as I could tell, kept her grades exceptional as well. But to her plebes, she was snap-quick, unrelenting, and intense without ever softening at the edges for familiarity or indifference. Despite my memory problems, I still have this image of her set, focused face beside her cutlass as she leads a formation with determined, precise steps. I don’t think it’s from a particular day or event; in all likelihood, it’s a construct of what I remember of her encapsulated into an easy-to-carry engram.

In gushing about this woman from 10 years ago who I didn’t even know from a life I walked away from, I’d rather err on the side of “slightly less creepy” as opposed posting a picture of her and learning if I can add fries to my restraining order. 

Here’s a picture of Fucking Guy on a Camel. He hasn’t been around much lately.

I mention this because of a single incident I do remember clearly. Except for why I was there. Or when it was. Or even—the point is is that I was sitting at one of the tables full of second classes and firsties who had some level of rank. I have no idea now what I was doing there—either of the series of actions which had a plebe like me seated amongst command staff or of my actions while there, but the important parts are still there.

Davidson was still a second class and (naturally) one of the few second-class who ranked highly enough to warrant a regular seat at that table. I remember she came later, after the announcements had been made, the food distributed, and the conversations started. She sat some distance away and if the presence of two first year midshipmen registered with her at all, she didn’t give any indication of it.

As for me, I rarely find people who hold my interest, and no one at The Academy held it like her. Away from the plebes, off the court, and unfettered by the myriad tasks of midshipman life, I didn’t initially realize I was seeing her for the first time in an environment of her peers and herself, not her subordinates, opponents, or duty. In that context she was quiet, almost awkward. Her interactions with her fellow second classes at the table—those selected as her equals in excellence—almost reminded me of my own, as if she carried that same excited uncertainty of how her words would be received by them. It wasn’t identical, just reminiscent; the takeaway here isn’t any similarities we have. In fact, I’m pretty sure we’ve only got two things in common apart from a few givens.

The takeaway is that away from the setting in which I knew her, Courtney Davidson was about three to six steps shy of “meek.” The effects on my mind were as follows:

I spent several days trying to reconstruct my brain by reconciling the intense Patriot League Women's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year, the terror of the lower classmen, and the third wheel at the lunch table. Maybe she was driven, but unpopular. Maybe she was socially awkward, but covered it with tackling unambiguous tasks with aplomb. Maybe she was worn out from being awesome all day and had literally left it all on the court. Maybe she had a headache. Maybe she had some feelings for the guy sitting next to her, the intense crush for a respected peer leaving her socially off-kilter. Maybe she’d made a recent mistake amongst this group and was displaying requisite levels of social contrition for their benefit.  Maybe she was diabetic and her blood sugar was off. Maybe it was an Andy Kauffman-esque comedic experiment. Maybe it was a calculated move for me to spread the story to my peers and soften her reputation amongst my peers before the end of the year so that she could better engage us as youngsters (sophomores). Maybe it was jump-dolphin mind control. Maybe it was one of a dozen other possibilities invited by details I simply hadn’t noticed at the time. Maybe her entire personality was simply whatever it had to be at the moment, and none of them were any more real than the other.

It was this last one that caught my imagination.

Monday: The moral of our story.

[1] Story may or may not actually be old.
[2] Story may or may not actually be zen.
[3] In fact, she was the reason I was quite willing to take shifts with The Drum and Bugle Corps to play at so many of the women’s basketball games.
[4] By default midshipmen are ‘ranked’ by years. First classes generally have one to six small-bar collar devices. Most first classes simply had a single bar with no special rank attached, any one of them with a position within The Brigade’s structure or another organization (like official ECAs) had few extra bars with a midshipman rank. Ventura, for example, ran The Drum and Bugle Corps, and boasted three bars as a midshipman lieutenant. Few—very few—second classes had any such billet, but those who did were often referred to by enlisted ranks to show their subordination to firsties.

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