Tuesday, 12 December 2006
Lasr Supper at Mad Mex
Sitting around our lunch table in the Center lounge, Antigone wondered if our little reading group of Visiting Fellows would meet again. We'd been meeting each Tuesday night to discuss a paper and then to drift off to dinner somewhere. Now there was only one Tuesday left, Antigone pointed out, on which everyone would be here, before the Fellows started departing for their home departments.
I feigned innocence. With the end of term approaching I'd been allowing things to slip. I was starting to worry about preparing my teaching and talks for the coming term. So it was easy to postpone organizing another meeting; and then soon there'd be one thing less to do.
"Oh yes, that would be very nice," I said, hoping that I did not look too much like a deer caught in the headlights. "What should we read?"
"Well," she said, "We needn't read anything. We could just meet and go out. Or I do have a paper we could read."
Then it fell into place. This group had been especially helpful in reading and criticizing each other's manuscripts. A few weeks before I had been a grateful recipient of their editorial services. We all knew Antigone had been working on a paper most of the term. It had spilled out of her office when its ideas grew too big for her small blackboard and needed the expanse of the new whiteboard in our lounge. I came in one morning and found the whiteboard covered from edge to edge with formulae. And then they'd be gone and the whiteboard would be covered with a detailed word map of the new intellectual terrain Antigone was charting. I'd started the habit of furtively peeking in when Antigone wasn't there to see how the project was unfolding. So now it was finished and Antigone had a manuscript.
"It's long. 15 or 16 pages," she said. "That's not long. We can easily read that," I blurted out, before I realized that her remark was really just offering me a polite escape in case I had second thoughts.
We assembled at the regular time, Tuesday, 5:30 pm. That was the time we picked so Boris and Hernan could attend Bob Brandom's seminar. We chatted while we waited for Hernan, reliably the last to appear. It's time to start the serious talk. "So, Antigone, how can we help you?" "Well--what do you think of the paper?"
Commenting on a draft paper is a delicate matter. There are no perfect papers in philosophy of science. Any paper can be improved. Good philosophical writing has something in common with poetry. The ideas are the essence. But how they are presented, their order, the density of the words, the way the ideas are named--all this matters a lot to the final goal of convincing the reader. If you give any paper a close reading, as we each had given this one, there will be many little criticisms to pursue.
Now every serious paper also has a serious author. In days and nights of thought and sweat, they have put a piece of their soul into the paper. It has become a part of them. Each author in their inner fantasies would love to hear the room explode in one thought: this paper is perfection, beyond extraordinary, although they know that will not happen. The moment when the paper is opened for criticism is a dangerous one.
I looked around the table. Silence. I gestured to Boris that he should start. He grinned and chuckled. His thought was completely clear. This is your job; you get us started; you always end up making big speeches in these meetings and we have to sit through them; so get on with it. So I did.
First I settled on one small point in the opposing position that I thought was completely mishandled. I wanted to show Antigone that we were on her side and the goal was to strengthen the paper. Then I let free associations take over. That was interesting. This was a risky thing to say. I didn't follow that.
Some people are slow and laconic. Some are fast and lively. Antigone is outside any such categorization. When you speak with her, she gazes at you with complete concentration, absorbing every one of your low voltage thoughts and reflecting them back to you with gestures and repeated phrases, like flashes of high voltage lightning. As my speech unfolded, the sparks were beginning to fly. She could sense that I thought she was still far from the final draft. She was frustrated that I needed to ask her to explain yet again her core idea. So I went to the whiteboard. There is something calming about writing ideas on a whiteboard. It externalizes them and depersonalizes them. We are no longer focused on the paper and the author whose soul lives within it. We are talking about those marks there on the whiteboard.
In honor of the approaching winter solstice, I decided not to bring our usual biscotti. Instead I had seasonal fare, a festive cylinder of Trader Joe's Gourmet Cranberry Nut Clusters Popcorn. Through all this, Boris, Hernan and I had been grasping for more than our fair share. I'd better take a photo, I thought, before it is all gone.
When I looked up from the photo, I noticed to my great satisfaction that Hernan had taken over. He was energetically quizzing Antigone, who had taken the controlling position at the whiteboard, pen in hand. And soon Stephanie and Boris joined in. The lively back and forth continued for a long time. Then Antigone sat down and we kept going but at a slower pace. And then, over two hours after we started, the same ideas seemed to be circling ineffectively around the table. It was time to stop.
"So where is dinner going to be?" Boris and Hernan had the same thought: "Mad Mex." We had stumbled in there a few weeks before when our first choice restaurant was full. "This is a _great_ place," Boris had said then, gazing in satisfaction at the over-the-top decorations and shouting over the loud thumping of the music. Stephanie and I had the same thought. "But it is so loud." We relented. Boris and Hernan's need for this place to host our last supper was strong.
While we drank margaritas and ate outrageous fried chilli appetizers, I found that my little digital camera could take quite serviceable photos in the dark room. We sat at the table long after the food was gone. Close to midnight, a waitress came over and politely and apologetically asked if they could use the table now.
John D. Norton