Another Wednesday, another evening in the city! I’m happy to report that the St. John’s College alumni NYC chapter seminar featured far less formalwear than last week’s JoB gala. The trip was a bit more harrowing than my previous one, since it involved getting to 38th St. during rush hour. I wish I had the patience for mass transit. And the people on it.
Which, in a sense, gets me to the subject of the alumni seminar! Those of you who’ve had to put up with my crap all these years know that St. John’s College (my graduate school, a.k.a. SJC) is based on study of the “Great Books,” and that our seminars consisted of the conversation that spins out of a leading question. Rather than professors, we had “tutors,” and everyone gets referred to as “Mr.” or “Ms.” There was also ritual scarification, but I heard that was only for the undergrads.
Anyway, a month or so ago, I received a card about the upcoming alumni seminar. I hadn’t attended one in five years, for whatever reasons I can muster. But I noticed that this one was
a) on a quickly readable work (Moliere’s comedy The Misanthrope), and
b) being led by one of my favorite tutors (Chester Burke).
Again, if you’ve had dealings with me over the years, you’ve probably heard me ramble about how my two years in Annapolis (1993-1995) were my most formative. Sure, I’ve gained plenty more experience over the years, and a lot of my views have changed as a result, but the foundation of who I am and how I read the world was laid during that span. [Obligatory joke about what else got laid back then, followed by a Dice-like”OH!”.]
The funny thing is, while I consider Mr. Burke to be a strong influence on my life and learning, I never actually had a class with him at St. John’s. No, our relationship consisted of countless hours on the basketball court, plus locker-room shooting of the breeze, and conversation on the way to and from the fieldhouse. In fact, I’m hard pressed to recall an encounter with him that wasn’t somehow related to basketball. I believe the only time we met off campus, it was to attend a Washington Bullets game at the Cap Center. In other words, I viewed much of our relationship through Worthy-esque Rec Specs.
The opportunity to catch up with Mr. Burke — whom I’d last seen in 1995 when he handed me my master’s degree and uttered, “Knicks in 7,” under his breath (unprophetically, since they wound up losing to the Pacers in 6) — was one I couldn’t pass up, even if I was a little disappointed that the seminar was being held at the boardroom of the Theatre Communications Group, rather than Basketball City over at Chelsea Piers.
A bunch of alums met up beforehand at a sushi restaurant, so I got to catch up with Mr. Burke for a bit. The 12-year hiatus in our conversation made it necessary for us to use broad strokes, but that’s one of the ways in which we start to figure out what’s important to us. When you only have a little time to talk, you have to figure out the essentials. Or you have to talk faster than a tweaker with logorrhea, and hope the other person can keep up. But I really did TRY to talk only about the big changes. And so did Mr. Burke, who told me about his new marriage and how he played in a pair of intramural hoops games the day before. He’s in his early 50s, which left me embarrassed that I’ve only picked up a basketball once in the past two years.
For a while, I was the youngest person in our pre-seminar group by at least 10 years. Some of the early arrivals were from early 1980s classes, and one was from the class of 1949. Mr. Burke, in fact, graduated from St. John’s in 1974, which provides more evidence for my thesis that the best career a St. John’s education prepares you for is . . . being a tutor at St. John’s! (According to SJC’s Wikipedia page, it looks like the best-known alumni from the Great Books era are Ahmet Ertegun, Charles “Quiz Show” Van Doren, and the guy who created MacGyver.)
As more alums arrived, I found myself in conversation with someone from the class of 1982, who explained to me how and why George Bush, Sr. may have ordered the murder of Swedish prime minister Olof Palme in 1986. At one point, he said he was having trouble remembering a name; I suggested that the CIA may be shooting a pink laser beam of information into his brain. I think he found that funny. Here’s his website.
Later, one of my oldest friends joined the group. John attended SJC as an undergrad. We haven’t really talked in more than 4 years — a subject I’ve written about before — so we pretty much just acted as though we knew each other, even if we still managed to complete each others’ sentences a couple of times during the seminar.
Eventually, we made our way upstairs. John & I lagged behind, helping guide a stone-deaf member of our group out of the restaurant and up to the seminar. By the time we reached the boardroom, two dozen alumni were already gathered, spanning 60 years of SJC classes. I noticed that we were all white, and there was only one woman among us, but this was St. John’s, not Hampshire College, so hey.
The seminar was a pretty intense two-hour take on the play: the nuances of its characters, its word-choices (among our various translations and Mr. Burke’s French edition) and, of course, its plot. It was a great seminar, and I’m sorry that I can’t really provide a ton of details it. Like all good conversations, it was organic, covering a million topics and perspectives. We explored the nature of the Alceste’s misanthropy, the self-centeredness of his love for Celimene, the redemptive vision of love offered up by Eliante, and the utter strangeness of 17th century French court, among other things.
I thought I made a pretty good point about the structure of comedy and how Moliere either missed a great payoff or was trying to make a point about the delusional self-importance of Alceste. It got derailed by the next person who spoke up, and I felt it would’ve been, um, self-important of me to push back to that point. But deep down, I know I was right.
My old pal John had a much better time of things, making excellent points about the play and the growth of two characters, nudging the conversation when it began to go awry, and getting some of the alums to re-ask their questions, in a bid to get them to better grasp what they were trying to say. We hadn’t shared an academic setting since our junior year of high school, so it was nice to see how he explored both the play and the dynamic of the seminar group.
(John also got the biggest laugh of the night when one of the “elder statesmen” talked about how flattery was the key job requirement for the French court in Moliere’s time. John remarked, “God, you are so perceptive! That is the best thing I’ve heard tonight!” It beat out my rendition of Alceste’s pal Philinte defending him, as channeled by Mink La Rouie of Miller’s Crossing: “He’s a right guy! He’s a straight shooter! I know he’s got a mixed reputation, but for a misanthrope he’s got a lot a good qualities!”
(Those goddam eggheads don’t know comedy when they hear it . . .)
That dynamic reminded me of how much I miss those Annapolis days. Living and working where I do, there aren’t many opportunities to talk about books the way we did Wednesday night. I still read an awful lot, but conversation helps bring books — and life — into their fullness.
After the seminar ended, we were to re-gather at a nearby cafÃ© for a late dinner. Amy was waiting for me at the cafÃ©, having stayed in the city for dinner with a friend. I wanted to introduce her to Mr. Burke and get a little more time to chat with him, but unfortunately, it was almost 9:30 at that point, and the lot where I was parked was closing at 10:00. So I gathered her up and we headed back to my car, meeting up with a bunch of the alumni who were on the way (I had used my mutant superpower of walking very fast to get out to the cafÃ© and back before the rest of the crowd had gotten its act together).
I got to introduce Amy & Mr. Burke briefly out on the sidewalk, and John asked us to head back to the cafÃ©. I explained that the lot was closing, but he wouldn’t take that for an answer. I then said, “We have to get up pretty early tomorrow,” which people never take seriously, even when I add “. . . seriously”. But you try getting up at 5:15am every weekday and see how ready you are for the nightlife, okay?
John wanted to shake hands, but I gave him a hug instead, which led to my near-suplexing, since John’s as big as a bear. Now I know how my wife feels, since I tend to hug her off her feet at least twice a day.
I didn’t take any pictures from the evening, which I’m sure is bumming you out, since you made it this far. Also, there was no tearful reconciliation or anything with my pal John. I wrote him a day after the seminar, but haven’t heard back from him. French comedy beats NYC drama.
I haven’t written to Mr. Burke yet, because I’ve been trying to get this post finished first. Now that I’m at the end, I feel that I’ve failed pretty heinously at describing just what I feel gained by knowing him during my time at SJC. I know I haven’t conveyed that sensation I had that he always heard music in his head, that some of his words were an attempt at translating that divine harmony. I certainly haven’t mentioned his deceptive first-step and the quick release of his jumper. Fortunately, there’s a new generation of students who are getting burned by that very shot.