The Thousand Year City….

August 08, 2008

These are to be the notes for the 2008 Oxford Round table trip to Exeter College. The paper, on Systems Dynamics issues in Sustainability, is done—at least in a complete draft form. My clothes are packed in my little valise, and I am probably more prepared this time around than at any other. But I feel terribly fidgety about this trip as it begins. Perhaps it is a case of “Sabbatical as Exile” or perhaps it is just having lost my little striped kitty cat, who moved out from the house and ran away while I was in Pennsylvania trying to hold things together there.

Some is financial– my sabbatical drops my small college income basically in half– more, I think is that this time I am actually traveling alone. And the truth of that is that I am somewhat afraid of ghosts, I suppose. It is not so bad to be out of my “comfort zone”– especially since my comfort zone is driving me a bit crazy at the moment. But still. I feel much like Charon, one day picking up from his boat and leaving. Like Virgil traveling from the glade Alone, rather than waiting for Dante. (the Dead are given only what life the living give them). Here is potentially the beginning point for a “De Profundus” stage of my life and existence. Let this not be the signal– lets be brave and look forward.

I rode to the airport, and had discussions with Dave Scaer. We talked a little about Churchill, and also about Virgil and Charon.

The flights are smooth, and I slept some on the first flight northward. I am mostly thoughtful. My own emotions are way up and way down. I tend to fixate on very small details– of faces or architecture, or food.

In Detroit I was again amused at the fairly loud proclamation of Americanism. And so I had my dinner of two “real” Coney Island hot dogs, complete with chili and onions. I find myself thinking aobut Charon collecting his coins from his passengers, but then turning and throwing them into the dark waters of the Styx. On the flight I dreamed of Angel wings. Watched clouds outside of the window.

Middle age and 45. It is not at all mortality that frightens me. Yet. More just how to begin to switch gears– against all of the zillion images in my head just now.

I am carrying the whole of the alchemy and glass manuscripts about in my head still– And my mom’s several book projects as well. These will stand as representative of my most recent phase. Where is the proper setting for the next? I am sort of seeking my destiny here– I am open to possibilities.

August 08, 2008

Flew into Heathrow. The flight food, in the middle of the night was amazingly good. The airlines epitomize the high energy system. And they do so rather proudly. I was going to fiddle around Heathrow for a few hours, since it was only about 7 a.m. By the time the flight got in. But customs went well and smoothly and everything. And so I wound up catching a 10 a.m. Bus directly to Oxford. The ATM card worked, and so I have a little money in my pocket.

I walked into town from Glouster Green, and had no trouble finding Exeter– the easiest to find, near to the Radcliffe Camera. On Turl Street. Technically, I am informed, I am a day early– and so I will be spending the night alone on the Exeter grounds. Oh, and by the way, it is alleged to be haunted. Of course it is!

I am pointed to my room, 5/5 on the very top center– up the little windy stairs, and with a garret-shaped door at the top. It reminds me very much of my little garret room at Irvin Hall at Penn State during my undergrad. My monk’s cell. No Internet, but with a dragon under the bed instead.

I go out. I wandered about town, made my pilgrimages. And relished two chocolate croissants. Bought soap and razors– discovered that my charger for my little digital camera doesn’t work. Got rained on. Came back, slept, showered, ate dinner around the corner at the KFC across the street from the Norman Tower. Came back. And spent the next two or three hours in the Exeter Chapel– which, as you likely know, is a quoted clone of the St Chapelle of Louis in Paris. Other than the Porter, I am the only person at Exeter. Keys to the Kingdom.

Middle of the first night. An evening that I will likely always remember. Having this particular chapel alone to myself is quite an amazing thing. Evening light just dying at the windows– and the myriad of ghosts. And here too is the work– the sigils of Celesteo and of Profundus. I suppose I am affected by my silly Cadfael novels. I don’t think the chapel is used all that much these days. But again, here, for me the emotional free-falls just now are quite amazing. I don’t know if they are actually cathartic or not. But I am at least very sensitized tonight.

I am faced with thinking about not-too-clear ideas of future and destiny and both sacred and profane. Celesteo and Profundus. Which doubles my headache! I am no theologian. I think a lot about my long list of books and publishing ideas that the next phase of my life should likely bring. I am about decided tonight that traditional publishing platforms are dead– I am wondering here, at this point, if I might establish a self-publishing entity nucleated around the idea of the Ravens Table. Here is my carved pew raven of wood. And there is the Dodo. Raven is the messenger– Dodo is the oblivion. Resurgam! I make notes to myself in the chapel on the strategies for building a virtual press. Time stretches and slows.

The amazing windows are murky now– and eventually I wonder if they could be photographed (well, if my camera worked!) I really AM the only person in Exeter. The bust of Tolkien seems to agree with me– I am reminded of Tolkien writing in the request book of the Exeter library that the Library actually needed a real dictionary!

Sunday Morning, August 9, 2008

Woke up early, about 6 a.m. Watched it get light—a bright clear windy sort of a day. I have to confess that what dreams I did have more matched Exeters less academic, more “punting” sort of side. This is more Hogwarts Quiddich matches than Potions or Incantations. My sense, this morning, I admit, is that the past 200 years worth of “students” in this room at least were not likely the most scholarly of sorts. Capable, judging from the feel of it—of course, certainly– but just not in the sense of…. Scholarly.

I’ve gone walking this morning down to the Isis (Thames)–and I am looking at the little canal and house boats. And, of course, at the rowers and the bicyclists. There is a crane or heron just across the water. I cant help but to wonder what the cost of the little boats must be. I can see the Oxford skyline over the river itself, the way it is intended to be seen. The sun is warm enough– but that breeze is fairly Arctic.

Repaired to the croissant shop—and then to the Museum of the History of Science– which used to be the old, original Ashmolean– a good place for me to haunt. Which has been rearranged somewhat since the last time that I was here. I haven’t figured out yet how to become associated with them.. They seem not at all in need of the likes of my skills! But I did get warm, and stake out the place for a long while.

In the afternoon, I have chased down the camera thing. No-one in the city had the right kind of charger, and so I have bought a different camera, finally. It is a little HP of good quality, pretty similar to my old one—with AA batteries. It was 68 pounds, total– and so, I think at that, just having a camera, a good investment, even at the price.

I went back to the Museum –and got the shots that I wanted– the ones that looked right in my head. Along with some cemetery shots of the churchyard at Magdalene. Speaking of which, at the Oxfam shop, for a few pounds, I also found 2 Magdalene College, and 2 Exeter College school china plates. These will become my souvenirs for this time I think. I don’t know about the logistics of smuggling them first back into Exeter, and then back out again– I certainly had better keep my receipt!

At 5 p.m. I went back for registration. And was pleased to find Joss Jordan– is great to see him. And also Dr Benjamin, looking proper. Begin to meet a few of the new group. I had eaten a Cornish pasty about 2 p.m., and so I avoided the potted meat sandwiches. I chose to wait for the British Beef at dinner “in-hall” later instead– which turned out to be excellent. Worked over my paper a bunch afterwards.

Monday August 10, 2008

Well, night, still, actually– I suppose from the still-dark it must be about 4 or at latest 5 a.m. On a rainy night. Think of the song lyrics: “At night, when all the world’s asleep, the questions run too deep—Please tell me who I am…” The whole of the school is asleep, and I am relishing my time, and my solitude. The little yellow lantern light is on atop the Chapel spire, and still, it is raining.

We had an excellent, long first day of presentations at the Oxford Union– in the white meeting rooms this time around, not in the debate hall.

When the session broke for lunch, and we returned to Exeter, they were television-filming an episode of Inspector Lewis—a murder scene, for the series. And there was Inspector Lewis (Kevin Whately) himself. A lot of our group was greatly entertained by that.

I am fidgeting over last minute changes to my presentation paper at that point, so I begged off on the college tour in the afternoon, and spent some high calibre alone time with the presentation draft.

It turns out that I am to be the first presenter in the evening session– in a small classroom with a chalk board. Frankly, it goes very well. I wind up keeping my notes with me, at hand, this time– which turns out to be a good thing. As I blank once, and have to look. The rest goes smoothly, and the questions are long and several. Being evening, everyone has port and coffee to get them through.

Tuesday August 11, 2008

So, imagine, if you will, the Great Hall of Exeter– with its glass and vaulted ceiling, and its generations of rector’s portraits looking sternly down. And then imagine the conversation between three of us– between DipL-Ing Peter Holzer, and Austrian architect and engineer, and with Professor Sanjoy Mukhergee, and Indian teacher of Managment and Philosophy—and myself (who I still dont know this trip, how to describe at all.) At the moment, a strong sense of three parts of one (Star Trek) persona.

The shared sense of teaching– the long term anguish of the professorial sacrifice of not having family and children, the eventual loss of graduating students, the power of not having read (or at least not having believed) the books of paradigms. The worth of trees as teachers. Some alchemy of Glass—some Indian Philosophy—and more than a little of engineering.

Realization– or at least voiced recognition of the medieval school structure– The Great Hall—the association of food with ego, with character, with construction and role modeling of the individual. Ths Hogwarts ettiquite of interaction. And the rhetoric of dinner conversation. Next is the Quad-sport space. Once archery and falconing. More recently it is the punting and rowing and soccer. A sense of movement– of developing grace and fluidity—and of competition, and also of teamwork. Third is the intellectual academy—the teaching and curriculum to both sharpen, but also to free the intellect and the mind. The third wall is the Chapel—spiritual growth, and both training and freeing of the spirit. Lux, Lumen, and Illumination.

Finally is Transcendence– The Great Door of the College, and the whole of the outside world outside of these walls. Here is the algorithm.

We talk about the ghosts– and about the importance of these portraits who still look down and “share a place at the table.” And about how, perhaps it actually takes 500 years to build a building. About echoes. We talk about space, the void, and about Primordium. About Light, which is Peter’s specialty. About spritual Ether, which is a bit more of Sunjoy’s specialty. I talk about the great age of glass mostly being over– too expensive in BTUs.

We talk engineering– about chemical engineering, Is there any way to be found to catalyze atmospheric CO2 directly into a carbon string resin for making polymers? Could this become feed stock for extrusion or (someday) three-D printing? It is only science fiction– but it seems that it should work. The carbon bond needs energy. Is it really endothermic? And how much? Is that a possible viable “dump” for extra heat in our atmosphere and in our lives? Thus a cooling function? If so could we make a technique of carbon sequestration by making “plastic” This to go with wood as a large-scale building material. How difficult would it be to make a viable polymer– or many of them? It would seem more likely than a lot of other sequestration schemes (other than, of course, the growing of trees).

Wednesday August 13, 2008

Spent a good portion of the night reading more carefully Sunjoy’s paper on Le Petit Prince/The Prophet/Bagavadgita. It is an excellent piece. About Leadership, Life-view, and Death. There is much good material there—if quite philosophical. It reminds me, and I wind up making sketch notes about “Ideal and Spleen” “Wunderkammer”– and about “Moorish Gardens.” It is not istself about “Sense of Place– although there is sense of place to it. This is more like Pirsig’s Quality. Avalon, perhaps, as I see it, rather than Eden. Some of the implications are still confusing– although it merges quite well with some of what I am reaching for. There is something “Ode-to-Vesper” ish about it. As well as “Story of My House.” There is a kernal here for a larger writing project– though it might take a season to parse it through. Impossible tasks!

Early morning, I spent another 2 hours or so in the Exeter Chapel, and thought about Sunjoy’s “Greater Silence”– anyone would think that I was turning to a religious man! I also photographed the pertinent panel of window– the light of god through a lens of glass.

There is a huge, well developed fairy ring of mushrooms just outside the chapel door when I come out– that I am quite positive was not there when I came past just at daybreak. In an odd way it makes me chuckle and makes me quite happy.

We have our day session, and then break for lunch. After that, Peter, Sunjoy and I do both the History of Science Museum, as well as the Natural History Museum. Peter is, as always, most concerned with the effect of the light within the structures– at natural History, the huge arched Victorian greenhouse glasses seem to rightly please him. Sunjoy is somewhat less enthused. But I enjoy Peter’s reaction—Engineer at heart.

Parts of the rest of the day were spent at Blenheim Palace out of town in greater Oxfordshire. This is the seat of the Churchill-Spencers. And by law, the only castle in Britain allowed if it wants, to be larger than the royal palaces. Having to do with the saving of Britain, I suppose. Huge yellow columned portico—look up and see the all-seeing eyes watching down from above. Difficult to photograph. The landscaping– including the huge lake was by Capability Brown– Natural vistas artificially made so natural that they make your teeth ache. Astounding gardens, formal and Britsh– of course, I am drawn to the largest Atlas and Deodar cedars in Britain. And take notice of the huge weeping willows.

Inside, we find that Charles Mould, who is our Roundtable trustee—from the British library—is playing pipe organ this day in the palace library– he is happy and beaming. We have the grand tour– it is nice– and quite the experience– we get to see the famed collection of porcelain that came here seeking sanctuary. We hear the story of the Spencer-Churchill heir issues, and the act of Parliament that allowed the line to continue. And we hear about the connection by marriage with Lady Vanderbilt, who got her title and royalty for only the price of an “heir and a spare” before eventually fleeing back to New York. Here is the island where Princess Diana is buried.

I tell Sunjoy the story of the Blenheim Orange apple, which grew up in a wall near here, and was discovered and saved by a baker– it was later recognized by the local Lord—and adopted as his own.

Evening, after the wrap-up and the last night banquet In-Hall, at which we had lamb. And also cheese cake dessert made with stilton and bleu cheese! Which was quite a shock to the system. Not bad—really– but mostly just shocking! We sat across from our Finnish/Norwegian contingents. The boy’s name is Alex– and he is the visitor here and helper of his grandmother. We all talk a little bit about the afternoon trip and about the palace– we all seem to suppose that it is a nice place– albeit seeping with sadness, and sort of tragic tales and unhappiness. But the truth is that palaces in general tend to leave us a little bit cold. It seems a small, slightly more British Versailles. And here also, through time, they have sold most of the original furniture for debts.

Thursday night, August 14th

Certificates given in the Great Hall, well-wishes exchanged. Candle-light in the Great Hall….. and then the paying customers take their leave. Admittedly, there is something of a hotel holiday aspect to this. And Sunjoy, for example has paid nearly a six-month of salary to come here. I don’t think that is a criticism of the Oxford Roundtable, exactly. It is just interesting to think about how much a trip to come and hang out at Oxford is actually worth to me– and what I might pay for the privilege. For both the Life and Stones of Oxford– but also for the trees and and the Quiet.

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