The Plight of Minerva

Years ago, when I was studying for the GREs and trying my best to get into one of the country’s finest continental philosophy programs, I drove to Davis two times a week. I’d study at Kaplan like a diligent little scholar, and instead of driving 115 miles back to Chico, I’d putter my old white Toyota truck down the back roads of Davis, its tree-lined streets, and nudge its nose into a local Newman Center. On the backside of the property, concealed from the street front, I’d make camp for the night, cooking and sleeping in the back of my truck. Weeks earlier, I had made arrangements with the pastor. He was amused by my jolly good initiative.

Every night at 9:40, a great horned owl, with its tufted ears and broadly shaped face, would perch itself like a gargoyle on a limb 50 feet or so above me. At 9:50, he’d alight from that branch with fearsome silence, disappearing for the night. He did this every night save one during my two-month pilgrimage. I thought him a very good omen.

One night, well after the owl had taken flight, I was startled awake by a sound or something like a sound. My heart raced, my nostrils flared. Slowly, I peered up over the bed of my truck and scanned the grounds without moving my head. Between a fence and an old, dilapidated shed, I saw the silhouette of a man pass. He disappeared behind the shed. Then he re-emerged at the other end. He drifted into a swale, where I lost sight of him.

I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t stop thinking. My uninvited guest troubled me. His presence disturbed me bodily. I grabbed a black, heavy-duty Maglite and slipped out of my sleeping bag, quietly stealing over the bed of my truck. I floated toward the depression in the ground, atingle with the need for answers. A large body was curled like a cat on the grass under a blanket. There were snuffling noises, too. Like a weapon resting on my shoulder, I blasted the body with the Maglite and shouted with rising panic, “Who are you! Who are you!” Suffused with light, a sullen, dirty face shouted back, “Don’t hurt me! Don’t hurt me! I’m just looking for a place to crash.” Utterly relieved and not a little bit ashamed, I turned the light off and reassured this other pilgrim that I wasn’t a cop or a groundskeeper or a violent misfit. This took some persuading.

We walked back to my truck. I fired up the stove and cooked noodles and heated water for hot chocolate. He ate and drank slowly, and with great care. He sighed through his nose. We spoke infrequently. I told him where I was from and why I was there, and that I was trying to get into grad school. He asked what I wanted to study. I told him. He froze with the mug of chocolate at his lips. His eyes crinkled and he smiled in disbelief, “Weird, I got my BA in philosophy.”

Of course he did. My heart sank.

I hadn’t thought of this experience in a long time, the owl, the Maglite, and the homeless man, there in the backyard of the Newman Center. Yesterday, as I read O’Connor, it came back to me in a terrific flood. The connection seems terribly slight to me. But that’s probably the way most associative leaps go. Here’s the passage, from Good Country People, about the unforgettable, one-legged Hulga.

The girl had taken a Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, “My daughter is a nurse,” or “My daughter is a schoolteacher,” or even, “My daughter is a chemical engineer.” You could not say, “My daughter is a philosopher.” That was something that ended with the Greeks and Romans.

To this day, I still don’t know if that owl was a good omen, or not.

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10 Responses to The Plight of Minerva

  1. Ah, now it’s all made clear. You’re a philosopher!

    Love the story and the associative connection … and am very glad that even we downunder know what a Maglite is otherwise I’d have been mightily worried by your actions.

  2. Colleen says:

    I saw an owl flying down the main street of Kingston the night before I wrote my PhD comprehensive exams. I was told it was a good omen, and indeed I passed the exams with flying colours. But I still lost body and soul to my PhD so it makes absolute sense to me to question the owls about their intents in our lives.

    • Exams for a PhD? That’s quite different to the situation over here. A PhD is a research degree here and is totally based on a significant piece of research work. At least I’ve never heard of there being exams. Interesting. I think that by the time you do a PhD here you are viewed more as an academic-in-training (even if that’s not your goal) than as a student (though you are of course still a student. If that makes sense!

  3. Anthony says:

    But did you stick with the philosophy?

    • Yes and no. I got into the program of my choice, and completed the coursework and one of two language requirements, and even formulated my dissertation topic. But one fine day, while I was attending a series of lectures organized around the theme of “the possibility of possibility,” I had an epiphany, a moment of stunning clarity. I disappeared inwardly. I didn’t emerge until I heard the sound of a Coke can being slowly mangled and ripped in two. I looked down and saw that the Coke can was in my hands and that the lecture hall was silent. Awkward. I stood up and walked out the door. And that was it. I left the program two weeks later. ABD. What proud wannabe scholar can’t claim those three letters as a badge of (dis)honor?

  4. Fiona Bell says:

    So glad we don’t have to do exams here! I am only six months into my PhD and I am still to do my confirmation, but that is the only real official hurdle… apart from giving your life and soul to your project for three years and the small opportunity of university employment in the aftermath.

  5. barbara neilson says:

    Sleeping in your pickup was frightening….attacking the interloper unbelievable….serving hot chocolate gratifying…..but the underlying question….the underlying question painfully sad.

  6. […] A philosopher-in-training meets an owl. […]

  7. […] At Interpolations, a philosopher-in-training met an owl. […]

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