On April 1st (the first day of trout season) I unleashed a series of lures on Cascadilla Creek. This stream runs its course from the hills surrounding Ellis Hollow, through the chasms that cut at the foundations of learning; Cornell University. It finally deposits its contents into Cayuga Lake at Ithaca. Cascadilla is not much different than other creeks in the area; Fall, Salmon, Buttermilk, Six Mile, etc. They all have their childhood in the country, their adult lives in urbanity, lose their energy at Route 13 then die in the last hundred yards before the Cayuga.
I should be quick to add that these streams are not alone in their description. Most streams in New York all have the same fate (although the Chateauguay and its sister the Salmon live much longer) and are even more beautiful.
My first visit to the Cascadilla was in 1969. I was immediately captured by her beauty. I ran my fingertips through her clear complexion and plumbed her depths. She was, indeed, one of a kind and I was infatuated. But what did I know? She was my first virgin stream and definitely more virtuous than the carnal Susquehanna River which I intimately knew.
I visited her once more, in 1974, but only for a day. Then in 1980 I invented an excuse to spend three days with her. I took my family on a camping trip in our new canvas sided pop-up. My days and nights were enjoyed with the family around a campfire. My early mornings and evenings were spent with her. We exchanged stories. She told me about where she grew up and I told her about my current concerns. She wished to share her bounties with me but I refused; except for three which I cooked for supper that evening.
Then there was a twelve year hiatus in which I thought I was too busy to visit her. In fact, I thought I was too busy for most everything except work. Finally in 1992 we spent a beautiful spring day together. We, once again, exchanged our live’s stories and concerns. I was a little older and worn but not any wiser. She had lost some of her beauty to the progress that was surrounding her.
On that spring afternoon I clambered out of the gorge and put my fishing gear in the trunk of my car. While exchanging my boots for a pair of walking shoes I met an old acquaintance; we will call him Professor Ambiguity; a faculty member of Cornell.
I had spent about ten minutes with him before the vivid memories of his style returned. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the guy. It was my original experience with him that confused me; his intended ambiguity.
Ambiguity is something that I had to fight against all of my adult life. Unknowns were the things that kept me from analyzing problems and creating solutions. Erasing ambiguity was a full time job when working with complex things and complex people. But, as it turned out, ambiguity was a desired attribute in the university setting. I do not state that as a bare faced fact. What I need to clarify (unambiguously) is that the collegiate form of ambiguity is a selective tool.
Allow me to clarify even farther. Collegiate ambiguity is boxed. The box is only opened when necessary. When teaching calculus, strength of materials, or Fournier series for example, ambiguity is kept in the box which is locked shut. However, when dealing with student, faculty or staff groups the box is opened and ambiguity spills out like quick-silver. How does one put the quick-silver back in the box? He doesn’t; and there is the beauty of ambiguity. It allows the user a little (or a lot) of wiggle room.
So where does one start when discussing equivocation, uncertainty and circumlocution? I would say (in answer to my own question) any meeting with professors. We could start with department faculty meetings or even meetings in the dean’s office. But, for the grand-daddy of all amorphous discussions I would choose the professor’s council. This organization has different names in different universities. It could be the “Faculty Senate” (which has a nice ring of arrogance) or the “Council of Chairs” (if we wish to eliminate the professorial riffraff) or simply the “Faculty Guild.”
Why select such large groups of faculty? Because we know that groups, larger in size than a pair, professors cannot agree on anything. Even if they could they would not admit it due to the demands of “original work.”
Now just imagine a meeting of the “Faculty Senate” in which a professor may be charged with inappropriate intimacy with a student. First an “act of faculty congress” would be required to have the charge brought into the open. Second of all (even if the charge was grudgingly acknowledged) no person outside of the Senate would recognize it.
Why?, because the “Senate Committee in Charge of Charges and other Paronomasia” would hide the charge in a sufficiently nebulous manner.
Therefore none of the campus newspapers would pick up on it (let alone the “Chronicle of Higher Education”). And even if they did, the Office of the Provost (or the editorial board; under pressure) would do its best to squash the story. Ambiguity would rear its ugly head in yet another form. This form would be threats cloaked in vague terms, oblique consequences and circumlocution of promises. Of course none of these promises and threats could ever be made public because they were built with a construction of winks.
The “Senate Committee in Charge of Charges and other Paronomasia” would be instructed (in an even more unclear and imprecise manner) to table the charge ad infinitum and document the tabling in an un-explititous (sorry about that word but if we are going to be ambiguous then we must be ambiguous with inconsistency) format. In this way the matter of the charges would be dulled or possibly even dropped due to their “obscurity due to aging”, “grey areas due to lack of fact”, “foggy memories”, or “re-location of those who failed to file affidavits.”
So what did I do in such an environment? I searched for a solution similar to Borges “Aleph” but I would only succeed in re-inventing the entire Hebrew alphabet (in Greek).
A quiet and dark place was required for such an undefined task.
I found a nice dungeon (the one in the basement of Hollister Hall) and laid a large sheet of cardboard on the dirty concrete floor. I then assumed the prone position and concentrated on a dim light at the other end of the musty room. I stared directly at the light until the whole world of ambiguity presented itself to me.
First the double meanings appeared as multiple shadows of a sundial under a star lit night. The enigmatic values of “six-of-one” versus “half-dozen of another” were followed by a vision of hazy memories and parallel mirrors. Several misleading values of peace and justice were written on the wall and then disappeared. My eye saw a shapeless ideal, my mind an amorphous truth, my touch a semi-dampness, I could smell a pungent yet bland odor, and finally the ear heard a contradiction. The fogginess of misleading either/or took on the shadows of a purple gauze sari that billowed in the Bactrian breeze. Finally a portmanteau of opposing semaphores was deposited at my side.
The lights came on, the ambiguity subsided, and a voice asked “are you all right?”
I answered “Maybe yes, maybe no” and walked out the door.