Sound the bugle

Flight of fancy

Posted in Mas despacio, por favor by justescaped on November 3, 2007

There I was, standing in a large dark room; impassive faces staring out of the shadows, their frozen expressions making me feel as if I was preaching in a wax museum. But that was not for long. I finished my gig, said my thanks and paused, it seems like, for an eternity. Here it comes, for I was that confident. The leak that was the first clap did not get a chance to establish its identity, when the room was shaken to its seams by the tide of the applause that followed. It lasted for 39 seconds, I counted one-one-thousand, two-one-thousa..three. Everyone was on their feet, the gray-bearded professor in the first row (Mr. Skeptic I’d labeled him within the first minute of my talk) was clapping in a manner that reminded me of Ian Mckellan, long sweeps of the arms coordinated with imperceptible nod of the head, all the time grinning toothily. There were the young turks in the back who hastily offloaded the portable computers from their laps, making sure not to be the last to jump to the feet. What they had missed, in the last twenty minutes or so while they mused away on their own talks or Sudoku or whatever, was possibly the most significant presentation of results ever given at this academic institution. And for an institution that boasts of seventeen Nobel laureates over the past eight decades, that’s saying a lot considering I was a few months short of graduation.

But it can never be that easy from the start. Never for a graduate student. Entering graduate school at the very prime of life, when the blood is at its reddest, is fraught with apprehension; joining a research group filled with an army of recruits brim-full with ego and with a complex pecking order, makes it doubly so. Those early months are the hardest; the window-less rooms, the long days spent indoors that correlated with the best weather of the decade. The food, suitably insipid and lacking imagination and a outside-of-work social life constrained by lack of money and moreover by lack of real people to be with.

As the months stretch into years, the only thing that kept me within touch of sanity (and I was one of those lucky few who did), was the fact that  slowly the work made a lot more sense. More than appreciating the big picture, as our advisor inanely kept reminding us to, we were appreciating the small battles that we won. The little tricks we played to beat the known paradigms, to incrementally achieve the perfection that noone else had achieved (lest we forget, which no-one else had attempted to either). To mine the depths of experimentation, without stumbling into the dark pits of triviality (for nothing is worth doing, if it is not worth doing).

Epiphany is a word defined by many, but truly realized by few. It is for that one flash of illumination that graduate students are instinctively drawn to; once it comes, it is every bit as invigorating as a sip from the decade old stock of Scotch stashed away in laboratory drawers. My moment came as I slipped on icy pavement late one night. For precisely that reason, I did not cry “Eureka” and start running down the aisles. It seemed so simple then, an extension of two conjoint theories that opened an alley of investigation that no one had attempted before. Even before I did, I was confident that I would find my pot of gold down there.

And what a bottomless pot it turned out to be, experiment after experiment worked brilliantly into a symphony of results. The advisor even took a passing interest in the affairs of the land, feinting to have critical ‘perspective’ which was, in reality, far inferior to my own insight into the matter. The paper was written soon enough, though given the significance of the findings I spent quite some nights wording the discussions and conclusions carefully. Hamlet was, I thought, after all written only once. The manuscript went out to the choiciest of academic journals, and soon enough, we were hearing from the referees. The referees, whose image of old men and women too steeped in intellectual stupor to be of any use to humankind was developed early in our academic careers, were begging for the article to be published. Suddenly, they appeared to be the worthy high priests of academia too smart to miss out on a good thing. The thing passed, and my name with the never used middle initial graced the cover page of the journal. The paper was introduced by the editors, who bet their salary that this was the discovery of the decade. It had reviews that made me blush. They would have made the rock of Gibraltar blush.

As the news spread, heaps and heaps of critical acclaim were published. Some liked the elegance of my experiments, some liked the active use of passive voice in my introduction. There was even a round of jousting, in which I dueled down a stout critic in a series of confrontational letters in another journal. The arguments and counter-arguments ran into the realms of philosophy and physics and it was a great rush….His eventual acknowledgement of my version of truth was the sweetest praise of all. Conferences after conferences followed, and it pleased me no end that I edged out my advisor in the number of invitations to talk. Life was great, and the eventual graduation was more of an event of celebration.

Job offers were aplenty. But it was The Ultimate Graduate Student Revenge, turning down offers for professorship from universities that had turn down my applications for graduate school, that gave the kicks. And I did get that opportunity not once, but several times over; in the end I did it more for the rejected graduate applicants all over than for my personal feelings.  In the end, I accepted a very enticing offer in one of the most prestigious (and richest) institutions, the one that offered….

Twang, twing. A sound jarring enough at ordinary decibel levels. At 2000 Watts that came through the monitors, the discordant note shot through the brain at the speed of a bullet. The hangover of a thousand nights in an instant, some part of my wounded brain mused. I looked around…bright lights. The fried smell of overheated electronics. My left hand changed grip position subconsciously and the right arm went…..Twang. That did the job. I blinked and looked around. Alex on the lead hadn’t heard; he was always stoned or pretended to be. “What the fuck are you upto?” Rob yelled from over the drums. He was mouthing off, I didn’t catch it all. Thank god for monitors. It all came rushing back. The large dark room, the bright lights, faces staring through the shadows. Only they weren’t impassive, their expressions were frozen in a permanent state of hysteria….do they ever faint, out of hyper-ventilation, perhaps? Our gig at the Wembley. A sell-out crowd. This was our song, the one that made us big. The one we had played a gazillion times over. I looked down at my guitar; the left hand had sneaked into a new position from the one it was programmed into being held, every time Alex started his fancy slide-lick-turn on his guitar. It was a good song…likeable, but the Billboard top 10 is rarely peer reviewed. Our fan mail (I say ‘our’, since its been two years since I received one for me…I counted) is rarely a critical evaluation of our song theory and its classical execution. Their praise was fulsome in their non-significance.

I adjusted the grip, I play chords for this section -A#, Gm, Csus… and so on, till I get to do it all over again. The moaning delirious crowd in the first row faded out as I closed my eyes and my mind. Once I became a full professor…

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