Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Forming an Opinion

I suppose it is the change in weather. The searing heat and the oppressive humidity finally broke late last week, and cooler, dryer air took its place. It is the kind of weather that would make my elderly mother say “It feels like Fall” with a wistful tone to her voice, as if she were speaking of the inevitability of death. Perhaps it is this change in weather from summer heat to fall-like conditions that caused me to dream last night some twenty-five years past to the beginnings of a Fall semester at the University of North Carolina.

The details of the dream were quite confused. I had found myself in the presence of old dorm mates, some of whom were suffering from a stomach bug. One had experienced a trauma of some sort, and word was spreading among my fellow students about his brush with violence. I stood in the communal bathroom when I felt the urge to vomit, and soon the familiar warm liquid came up, smelling of sour milk and stale cigarettes. I cleaned myself off and set out on the mission that I so dreaded.

My walk across campus fused the familiar places of UNC with some of the cities I have known in my life since. I crossed Chapel Hill, London, Paris, and Washington, DC. I would move from one building in London past the beauty of a fog-shrouded McCorkle place, only to find myself standing next to a monument from Washington or Paris. It makes no sense now, but in the dream, it was all perfectly normal.

I soon found myself standing before Venable Hall and Wilson Library and went in search of my future Chemistry professor. I found him sitting with colleagues in a combination of the lab setting of Venable Hall and the stacks of the library, chatting with his peers. This particular professor had come to UNC, as he publicly stated back then, only because they offered him a laboratory to complete his research. Part of his contract stipulated that he also had to teach inorganic chemistry to undergraduates, a fact that made him resentful. He spoke openly about how he was only in the classroom because it was a requirement of his lease for the lab space.

My mission that day had been to solicit his help. I had just signed up for 18 hours of classes, but that schedule included his class in Chemistry as well as the second semester course in Calculus, a subject that gave me difficulty. I had come to plead for help if I needed it. As I approached the man who inspired fear of authority within me and who wore an absurd beard of Mennonite style, I remembered my smell of vomit and stale cigarettes and I apologized for having been sick and for reeking of it now. I would not approach closely enough to shake his hand, but instead, greeted him from a short distance away.

I asked if I could speak with him for a few minutes, and soon noticed that his colleagues had gathered around to listen in on our conversation. I explained that I had just signed up for his class as well as an overload of medieval French literature, economics, English composition, philosophy and last, but not least, the second semester calculus course that concerned me. I had done quite well in the first semester class, despite the ramblings of a math professor who also wore a Mennonite’s beard. I had done well, that is, until we came upon the chapter on verbal math problems. These devilish postulations of possibility gave me no end of terror and I pored over them in hopes of finding a single rule of logic that I could apply to break their spell over me. I had spent so much time in working through them that I didn’t focus on the introduction to derivatives that came next and instead focused my attention for the final exams on the word problems. When the final exam proved to consist almost entirely of derivatives, I performed miserably and watched my high B average for the class drop to a final grade of C.

I had come to ask for help in the event that I should fall behind or lose my way. I feared the loss of foundation in the second semester calculus course as it was based on the part of the first course that I had overlooked. When I spelled out my course load of 18 hours and the content of those courses, a lively discussion between the pod of professors ensued.

My chemistry professor spoke up and said that he would be as helpful as he could be, but then a man behind me sang out that he had studied the works of a colleague who had developed a formula proving, without a doubt, that a student would pass or fail, according to past performance, present workload and content of the courses. He went through a long and detailed proof of the formula, which I followed as it wove its way through past grade-point averages, weightings for content of classes, number of total hours of class within a given semester and the student’s propensity to socialize. At the end, he finished up by stating that I would unequivocally fail the Chemistry and Calculus classes. In my defense, I asked, “Shouldn’t I receive credit just for having followed that proof?”

My chemistry professor then spoke to me and said that he would still help me out as much as he would be able to do, but that it was looking bad for me. The esteemed colleague had already pronounced me as good as failed for both of my most dreaded classes. He then pointed to the woman who was sitting nearby, his assistant and secretary and attributed the following quote to her. He stated, “As Mrs. Methelhany would state, ‘They take my opinion, and then they give it to me.’” With that, we all broke out into peels of laughter and I awoke from my dream, smelling a bit of sour milk and stale cigarettes.

When my mind cleared a bit from the dream, that quote was still running through it. Surely, it is a summary of our society, but to whom should it be attributed? It came to me in a dream, but not from the main character. Why would it have arrived as a quote from a speechless woman who sat laughing in the dream as her words were used by another, although attributed to her. These people were all figments of my imagination or perhaps figments of the 20 or so drugs that I take daily to fight off my HIV. I immediately thought that I must have heard this quote from someone famous or must have read it in some biography.

On logging on, I typed the words into Google to find the source of the words. They were not found, not attributed to anyone else, They could only have come from my own brain and its peculiar chemistry of HIV meds and my genetic background.

“They take my opinion, and then they give it to me.” This is so much a summary of life in the world these days. From the moment we awaken until the time we relegate ourselves to our most bizarre dreams, we are barraged with the opinions that our society would have us take as our own. Spin on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and now in Lebanon comes daily from the White House, and it is oh-so-non-convincing. From that, we move to billboards and television commercials that tell us what and how to think, what to buy, what to eat, what we will enjoy eating. It is no wonder that our society is falling prey to war hawks who have misled us into a huge, intractable folly.

Perhaps, this lesson, coming to me from myself, filtered through 25 years of life is as powerful for others as it is for me. It represents how I used to live…but now I live with my own opinions as freely as I possibly can. Are you happy to have your opinions given to you or can you think for yourself?

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