You walk out of the gym, satisfied with your work out. You can feel the wear in your arms, still fresh from the swim. The chlorine smell from the pool drips onto the collar of your shirt as your hair dries in the sun. Paced and calm, you enjoy the walk back to the office, taking your time, taking it all in. You love being on campus in the afternoon. Students pass by in fast forward, late for class coming from work. Some are late for work coming from class. They get nearer to the cars passing on the crosswalk—closer than you’re comfortable with. One of them, wearing head phones, holds up a middle finger as a red Sedan passes, which doesn’t even hesitate to stop, almost hitting him. You sigh in disbelief. The ignorance of Florida drivers. Still, you don’t feel sorry for the guy with the headphones. He wasn’t paying attention, either.
Three black guys coming your way are elated in conversation, smiling and joking, taking up a lot of room and making a ruckus. You smile behind your sunglasses, remembering college and recalling two friends you’ve lost touch with completely. You feel a twist of longful nostalgia, envious of a carefree sensibility that you’ve lost. A feeling of freedom absent in a space leftover from a not-so-distanced youth. You catch a bit of the conversation as they pass: “Nigga, shut up! You don’t know what she said wh-” The words echo in your head. You can’t get past “Nigga” and you think about the power of words that construct reality. You wonder why so many people struggle with difference. You can’t help but think about how some words stay in use long after they should. You know that there’s a cultural identity tied up in certain labels, which have been purposed and re-purposed, but you’re not sure that some will ever be completely free of stigma. Your body gets tense when you hear certain language and you wonder if other people have the same reaction. You try to recall the last time you let your lack of cultural sensitivity get the best of you but you can’t. You decide to omit the word “gay” from your vocabulary. You’re pretty sure you won’t be completely successful with that. Still, it’s worth trying.
Ahead of you is a series of waist high boards, propped up and lined in a row next to a table. Some sort of campus group set them up in the green, no doubt. Maybe protesters. Maybe street preachers. Who knows. You guess names as you walk up, thinking up possible student groups: Students for Social Change…Young Democrats of Tampa…Occupy USF…Campus Coalition for the Homeless. You hope it isn’t anti-abortion propagandists from last week.
Turning the corner, you see that the boards are yellow with a big, sloppy number painted on the front of each. The first one says “US Total Debt.” The number is in the trillions. Silly. You keep walking. Then you stop, take out your camera and kneel beside the last number, snapping a few pictures, taking a shot of the whole thing. You think about how ridiculous money really is, how the national debt is merely an indicator of a government’s inability to play by their own rules. Laughing, you resist the urge to go ask the student standing at the booth if he realizes that money has become less and less real. You want to know if he sees the irony in the whole display, which uses large, physical objects to, quite literally, make money real for us. Money that is rarely represented by dollar bills. Money that’s no longer in our pockets as much as it’s in our clouds. Money that you can spend on Google Checkout. You realize that you’re probably the only one reading into this so deeply, so you keep moving. You check around, but no one was staring.
You head in the direction of the cafe in the basement of the business building. You don’t even notice that you failed to catch the name of the student group responsible for what turned out to be a clever political statement about capitalism, systems of exchange, and material culture. When you get to the cafe, you order a Tuna sandwich, wondering if it’s healthier than roast beef. You decide that you don’t really care. The workout was a good one. Looking through the pictures on your phone of the giant, wooden numbers, you think about your morning. You see yourself sitting in the communication building performance lab, surrounded by colleagues and mentors, listening intently to Mary Catherine Bateson talk about learning. She’s disarming, almost prophetic.
She leans forward in her seat, sculpting the air with her hands, looking at you, then past you, then next to you, then the other way. She talks about the importance of play and improvisation. You shake your head in agreement. You shift your weight. You lose track of the room as you zero in, focused. She answers questions with adapted lecture notes that come out like mini-seminars, genuinely honest and spontaneous, yet authentically true to her thoughts. Old thoughts. Thoughts she’s mulled over and adapted for years. You realize this is what she means when she says “we’re all making it up as we go along.” She says we need to spend more time being reflective—that all wisdom is derived from thinking about thinking. That “thinking about thinking” is the same as “learning.” She insists that we should find a way to dictate our actions as they’re happening, not just talk about them after the fact. If we can do that, we’ll reveal that we don’t really learn in the “now” but that we’re always making reality out of things that we already knew.
Mustard farts out of a bottle. You look at the women behind the counter as you grab your sandwich and ask for a pickle. You decide that Bateson’s “now” has got to be connected to Micheal Heim’s “virtual,” which he says is another word for “as if.” You hand over your card to pay. “$8.50” the cashier tells you, handing it back swiped. You don’t get a chance to process the information but you think that $8.50 is too much for lunch, especially considering the quality of the bread. You try to recall the last time you paid with cash, thinking about how your sense of money and value has shifted in the last decade. When did everyone start paying with plastic? When did that become normal? You can’t seem to pinpoint it.
Moving toward the plastic silverware, you steal more than your share of knives and take a handful of napkins. You briskly open the door with your back, hands full of food and utensils, hoping no one will yell at you. As you scale the steps of the building, you move toward the sunlight, heading for your building. You talk to yourself out-loud, unaware that someone’s coming down the steps: “Virtual is the moment we reflect on what we think. The moment we make reality in our own words. It’s a reality out of nothing but what we remember from our experience. And our experience is only what we make of it.” You think that’s pretty clever, but know it needs some work.
The woman coming down the steps makes awkward eye contact. You stop talking, not sure if she heard you. You’re pretty sure she speeds up as she passes. You wonder why you’re so weird. You decide that when you get to your office, first things first, you’re going to start writing. Get it all out. At the top of the steps you breathe in the sunny Florida air and you ask yourself: Is all thinking virtual? Is money only a thought? If so, what’s the value in thinking? And what’s the value in virtual?