September 27, 2013

This Shit Writes Itself

An old college buddy was in town over the weekend recently and so, as is our custom, we tooled across the San Rafael Bridge to the woebegone flatlands of the East Bay to visit the alma mater. We just walked around.  The Berkeley we attended in the late Sixties isn't there anymore, because nothing is where you left it.  That's the first lesson of four-dimensional Reality; the other spatial dimensions may keep their original shape, Sproul Plaza may look just as it did when Mario Savio warned everyone about the odious machine, but Time and History have moved on, and the present which inhabits Berkeley now is not the present we experienced.  Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but then it never was.  Going to the site of a bygone era never produces much in the way of immediacy; what is it that people expect to happen?

At a clothing store on Bancroft, across from the Telegraph Avenue entrance to the campus, I saw a stack of red tee-shirts with Will Shakespeare's likeness silkscreened on the front above the words in script, "This shit writes itself."  Years ago I read a Peter DeVries comic novel set in academia, as many of his books were, where that was the central conceit of the protagonist.  William Shakespeare was overrated and concealed banality behind belletristic, highly embellished phrasing which anyone could imitate.  His shit wrote itself.  I found the novel irritating and pretentious; there was nothing banal about Shakespeare, and the Elizabethan language he employed soared on wings of matchless beauty.  The faux-Shakespeare which DeVries attempted in an effort to prove his point only showed that the author's shit wrote itself but did not approach the Bard of Avon's work.

Cowell Hospital, where I worked to put myself through school, is gone now, replaced by the Haas School of Business.  I would describe the architectural style of the school as Chateau-Nouveau.  Big Business is definitely where the money is now, if ever it were anywhere else in American history.  Across Panoramic from the Haas is the newly-refurbished Memorial Stadium, with its inevitable "world class" training facility, built as a shrine to a departed, and highly overpaid, football coach. The clean, modern concourses at Memorial, the graceful apron of white concrete covering the old dirt approaches from the campus, put the stadium in the big time.  UC alums can hold their heads up high whenever they entertain friends from Norman, Oklahoma or Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  The football team is still mediocre, of course, but they now lose in a beautiful venue.

We drove back to the West Bay over the new Bay Bridge.  This is another structure of surpassing beauty, the old clunky "cantilever" section that once connected Yerba Buena Island to Oakland replaced by a graceful span suspended over the bay by a single spire, from which hang the suspension cables to either side of the roadway.  The effect is like driving under a pair of immense harps leaning against each other.  I was actually blown away by the ingenuity of the design and its gorgeous realization.

I've been in the Bay Area a long time.  New things keep replacing the old things of my youth here, of course.  So many things are different, yet in some basic way that's difficult to express, it all still looks much the same.  Most of the people I knew growing up here are now gone, one way or the other.  The old college buddy now lives on the South Coast of England, as a single example.  My favorite cousin, the writer who lived in Santa Cruz, left this life altogether four years ago, or at least that corporeal form which existed before his constituent parts were scattered in his beloved Northern California.

I suppose that will be my fate too, some day.  It sounds right.  For now, the Swimmer abides.

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