It Was Mother

It Was It

It Was It
Wayras Olivier
JULY 2017

IT WAS OFTEN SAID that my high school biology teacher had major altitude, surpassing even his students in elevation, and could not lower himself even when pushed, down to the bottom so as to pay attention to the shallow speech that tickled the ordinary species of teachers in the faculty lunch room—merry, daft, and gay. Decidedly incontrovertible, and inexorably headstrong, his mental faculties had been painstakingly optimized through a stringent postdoctoral education, and were not burdened by substance abuse, or the stress and strain of a taxing marriage. Staying clear even from caffeine (in spite of his constant brewing) such disciplined psychological consilience, sharpened the stoic, however unforgiving, measured and meticulous reasoning that he was so tirelessly celebrated for in his classroom.

Good enough reason for an ex-student to return—after enduring Adaptation (released just months before the Human Genome Project was completed)—to their high school for a quick visit in 2002. I myself, having long ago slept through my teacher’s class, was now keen to give him his awakening: encouraging feedback to address the nature of his teaching, and the astonishing double act it pulled of being, much like Adaptation, full of depth and insight while being an absolute bore. The details of how the whole ‘show’ had been—in its totality—assembled, were never described as hectic, a hassle, or a giant mess that’s chock full of insurmountable odds and danger. He found a way, somehow, to cut out the best parts: from the birds and the bees to the flowers and the trees, and how they were all created by a force that yawned out its own dawning on how to best get off—by banging itself—to a rough indentured start before learning how to intercourse with itself selflessly and intelligently so that all things could, at the same time, come together. Bedroom etiquette aside, you have that idea to thank, even for those without a dangling appendage, for making you erect. Instead, he assembled the whole show into a 150-hour trailer that brought the whole house considerably down with a snore.

Even the hokey horticulturist/part time peddler of digital pornography John Laroche (Chris Cooper) was in the know of nature’s Bacchanalian ways. He instructs:

“…every one of these flowers [at an Orchid show] has a specific relationship with the insect that pollinates it. There’s a certain orchid that looks exactly like a certain insect so the insect is drawn to this flower, its double, its soul mate, and wants nothing more than to make love to it. After the insect flies off, it spots another soul mate flower and makes love to it, thus pollinating it. Neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. I mean, how could they know that because of their little dance the world lives? But does. By simply doing what they’re designed to do something large and magnificent happens. In this sense they show us how to live—how the only barometer you have is your heart. How when you spot your flower you can’t let anything get in your way.”

Why then, I thought, as I entered my old school, did the immovable teacher appear to have never in his life used a pair of jumper cables. His battery was never charged, or, dare I say, pruriently aroused by evolution—a concept that so passionately focuses the minds of those who can’t resist being teased by an idea that plays so hard to get.

It was 4:00 p.m. and I would need, on my way through the empty corridor towards his classroom, to think of a sophisticated segue if I hoped to open up the old clam with a line. “I was starting to believe the reason it matters to care passionately about something,” I’m now quoting the voice-over of Meryl Streep’s character, author Susan Orlean, “is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size.” Orlean’s rather navigating insight, if we are to believe that fascination is indeed itself an attribute of evolution that grants us the ability, when the notion of the unattainable becomes too disheartening, to draw a line anywhere we please and call it, however briefly, “the horizon,” seemed a tad too sweeping to use on my teacher as an opener. I was in danger, real danger, of being perceived as an ex-student turned skipper who was out cruising. “Call me Ishmael,” forget that. I was there to challenge his so-called expertise on life, prompted by the comatose character played by Cage, who—with his fear of being devoured by bliss—seemed to know, or at least pretended to know, like my teacher, something about the advantages of never casting off that I didn’t. Comes the opening, as a reminder, five minutes in:

“I don’t want to cram in sex,” I’m now quoting Cage’s defunct character, screenwriter Charlie Kauffman talking about Orlean’s book, The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession to a producer who’s hired Kauffman to write the adaptation, “or guns, or car chases, you know, or characters learning profound life lessons, or growing, or coming to like each other, or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that, and life isn’t like that; it just isn’t.”

Think now, just for a second: the world deconstructed and defined, or, rather undefined by the chain-smoking, turtle-neck wearing existentialists (who still exist) in their fitted French raincoats, and how they didn’t even bother to put the world back together again the way they found it. What about them? Even they knew that if one is going to be insufferable with friends, family, students, or colleagues, one is expected to sneer, however incomprehensibly, in a slightly come-hither tone, the advantages of seeing life as meaningless and absurd.

So then, at the foot of his classroom, before entering, I opted instead for a more Socratic approach. Rather than quote a line, I would, like a gadfly, simply ask a question. The answer to which would speak volumes about his character. Much like Cage to Streep in that imperishable scene inside her office at The New Yorker:

Kauffman: If you could have dinner with one historical
person living or dead, who would it be?

Orlean: Uh, well, I’d have to say [rolling her eyes] Einstein or

“She’s lying,” Kauffman immediately concludes to himself, or, I should rather say to his twin brother, “people who answer questions too right are liars, and everybody says Jesus and Einstein, it’s a pre-packaged answer.”

My old teacher wouldn’t dare answer Jesus or Einstein, this much I knew. He’d say Darwin or Rachel Carson. Both are pre-packaged answers for a biology teacher, for the identity of the persons he truly yearned to have a candlelit dinner with—Mata Hari? Tina Turner? Richard Simmons?—would need to be protected for the sake of his pristine academic credibility. Amongst the educated class, however, it’s a known fact that the secret to exponential growth is to go outside one’s area of expertise. He would know that by now, no?

Upon my discovery that he was nowhere to be found, I learned that my old school, which had venerated the cold fish for possessing a quotient of Darwin’s genius (still more than most) had forced the great professor into taking a leave of absence.

You may care to remember that fish are the last to discover water.

The story, told by my old high school guidance counselor (who shouldn’t have been telling me this) was that: “he simply couldn’t take it anymore.” The teacher had spent his career thinking too deeply “into” nature (note the use of the word “into” rather than “about,” a detail I did not register at the time which now makes, after recognizing that such a difference exists, the story much more intense) which is what caused him to split upon taking in more than his fair share. This one-sided transaction then, of taking in more than one’s fair share is, as she never elaborated any further, presumably the rapacious extraction of nature’s pearls.

One night, in his living room, the late hours had pushed the inmost professor even further, culminating in a pitiless nosedive right into the very heart of his contemplations; the exploration of which, presumably, sunk so deep and distant, and the probing so fathomless and exacting, that once he emerged he got ‘the bends.’ A psychological version of decompression, or ‘adaptation sickness,’ if you will—the kind a diver gets from ascending too quickly and failing to acclimate themselves from the pressure they were under while scrutinizing the terrain of the abyss. Abruptly, and supposedly unaware of his own actions, Mr. _____ found himself distraught and denuded, without a stitch of clothing on other than a shower cap, frantically leaping about like a ballerina while shrieking, and here’s the part that causes me to groan both incredulously yet piously, in torturous elation: “I’m a whale; I’m a whale.”

A truly terrifying story, one that isn’t funny, not even slightly, if he in truth was having a psychotic breakdown. However, the old downer may not have been going insane. Indeed, perhaps he really was a baby beluga. A man in the throes of a provisional breakdown, akin to a breakthrough—a surge of Élan Vital that temporarily suspended his scientific biases; a surge he was merely struggling to adapt to. It would certainly, and quite significantly, nudge the dullard up the likeability scale as reveling in unmotivated jubilation makes for a most winsome idiot. (Raffi, the dinner date he was protecting?) Preferable no doubt to the humiliation of being, like Moby Dick, shadowed by a psychotic persistence, and the accompanying stress of losing one’s tail.

Consider American geneticist Francis Collins, who I would later read had a rather profound—profound because it’s a noticeably outrageous non sequitur—‘born again’ experience hiking in the mountains of the northwest. The discerningly acute agnostic-turned-atheist was also the brilliant American lead for the Human Genome Project and had mapped out the complete human genetic code (we’re not significantly more complex than pigs and bananas, it turns out) before dropping to his knees one afternoon in reverent awe at the sight of a frozen waterfall, in the backwoods of the Cascades, that he was certain was the work of the Christian holy trinity, with its intensely pronounced coruscating, crystalline symmetry. Mmmhh.

One of two things occurred (to my old teacher) as I think back on it, both of which I suspect involved nature pimping him out. First, using only the mind to penetrate nature is—as an approach, so one-sidedly “masculine”—the reason my teacher was finally discovering what its like to feel like a John—easily thrown, misled, and, for the purpose of one’s own evolution, tricked out by feminine velocity. A second reason, admittedly my favorite, would be that the dear unyielding professor was being taught, finally, having never taught his students himself—nor could he, unless he had experiential knowledge—about nature’s most historically persuasive gift, however idiosyncratic: her impulse for drama.