Ray Appen

Christina and I traveled to Norman, Oklahoma last week, possibly for the second to last time.  We’ll be back in a couple of weeks for Carl’s graduation.  

Amelia graduated from the University of Oklahoma, and when Carl graduates, we will have been attending the school for the better part of 10 years, although it feels longer. During that time, we have always tried to visit at least once a semester to participate, just for a few days in the life that our children live in that wonderful academic world.  

We almost always sit in on as many classes as we can fit into our schedule, and both the kids — Amelia and Carl — have always been glad, I think, that we would have the interest in doing that. The professors too, I think, are usually a bit surprised, but after they figure out that there really is no hidden agenda, they almost always relax and, in the back of their minds, may even be somewhat flattered.  

The visits to Norman and especially attending classes, always takes me back — way back — to that place in my mind that will forever store my time in school. It is a bittersweet place for me. I immediately miss it and want to go back.  And while I do love what I do now and where my life resides now, that time I don’t think I will ever let go completely.  

It always startles me when I hear a parent bragging about how fast their kid went through school. Other than the expense, “why,” I always think to myself, “why would you see that as a good thing?” So, they can get into corporate faster and start their 25 years of doing something for the benefit of someone else instead of spending their time learning for themselves? 

We’re going to miss OU. Christina and I used to spend as much time as we could in the soft, enabling silence of the OU library. We even had a hidden nook where we would go escape to and read while the kids were in class. We’d sit for hours in two stoic high-backed wooden reading chairs, each placed directly beneath two aging framed prints — one of Shakespeare and the other Cervantes. The nook felt like our own special personal space —private space — where only reading and silence were permitted.  

Adjacent to our little hidden nook was my favorite — the great reading room with its 30-foot tall ceiling. The room itself is perhaps 150 feet long and paneled wall to wall in hardwoods. Long narrow windows line the sides of the room and admit diffused light into vacuous space. Hand-crafted lamps — cast-iron and possibly blown glass — hang from long, black, steel chains bolted into the towering ceiling above. A dark mahogany reading table stretches through the center room like a train in the distance. Long rows of plush leather-covered oak chairs crowd both sides of the table — sentries guarding a royal procession. 

Nothing moves. The air is still and feels frozen as if in a tomb. The smell of old books and curiosity from a thousand students, and then thousands more, and the passage of time — decades upon decades — seems to permeate this space.

Three stories up — or was it four — we follow Carl through the archives — deep into the bowels of the library. These books that fill endless rows of steel shelves lie dormant as if in a deep slumber — fading red, dull orange, “earthy” toned covers, deep brown leather-bound books with cracks from age — obviously unused and unread in decades, perhaps longer. 

We walk slowly, taking care and slouching slightly to avoid hitting the piping running through the low ceilings. We pass tens of thousands of books and bound periodicals as we follow him.  

“Here in Oklahoma there is a law that says that the library can’t sell any of the old books or periodicals and that they must be burned instead if they want to get rid of them,” he tells us. We are alone up here. We pass no students. Few pass these long, narrow corridors.

“We are in a vault — a time machine of knowledge and of history, “ I think to myself. 

I’m glad we do not hurry.

At the end of a row, we turn a corner see a low seated narrow window emitting dull light onto the floor of the walkway, and dust particles ride the beams of light in random motion. Carl points to the small step stool off to the side, next to the window.  

“This is my space,” he says, “where I can go. I sometimes sit up here for hours and read,” he shares with us.  

“Does he know,“ I wonder. He will tell his children about these books, and this space someday. 

Later, we walk past a non-descript-looking three story building as we leave the library for what may be the last time.  I remembered that Carl had shared with me a couple years ago that the building was one of Andrew Carnegie’s first charitable donations and that originally it was the OU library. Now it is where Carl takes many of his Letter’s classes — Latin, philosophy and history. As we walk past the building, I think that Carnegie would probably be pleased to see his donation is still helping bring knowledge to the world after almost a hundred years. 

That night, we enjoyed a formal catered guest lecture on T.S. Elliot by a famous Elliot scholar. The next day, we showed up at what was supposed to be a very small and private “Socratic seminar“ on a different literary topic. We discovered it by accident when Carl had noticed a posting on a scrap of paper pinned on a bulletin board.  All it had said was “This is Water discussion,“ and gave a location and time. So, we went. What we found turned out to be a professor and four students meeting in a small conference room. But “no worries.”  The surprised professor invited us to stay and participate — and we did for several hours.  

The discussion was about David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech “This is Water,” which Carl discovered years ago and shared with me. I have watched the YouTube video of his speech many times and it is to this day, one of my more treasured possessions. 

Near the end of the discussion, one of the students — the one who until that point had said not a single word the whole time — spoke.   

“Wallace made two points,” he observed. The first was that our default is to see the world through a self-centered “me” filter that colors everything — what we see and understand and what we don’t see. “Because we look through that filter, we tend to only take note of things that impact us — the “big” things and not so much things that impact others. “  

The student noted that making the decision to not focus just on ourselves is a conscious, moral choice, a decision we make every day and every hour. “It is important that we understand this because,” he said, “most of our lives are actually made up of these smaller, seemingly mundane less important moments — the points in-between. “  He couldn’t have been older than maybe 22, if that. 

No one spoke for what seemed like a very long time.

As we flew home, I couldn’t stop thinking about our visit. I took inventory of the two nights and three days we spent with Carl at his university. We did a lot together. We learned a lot together in those few days. We met impassioned professors. We revisited an old library that welcomed us like we were long lost children. We felt the embrace of a long dead industrialist. And while we did hurry to pack in as much as we could together, we walked slowly enough to have noticed and read a scrap of paper pinned to a bulletin board — and experience the points in-between.

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