adventure #21 – high spirits & great expectations

high spirits, by robertson davies
the entrance to massey college
the side of massey college
the front of massey college
i sincerely struggled with this week’s adventure – not only because as i sit to write about it, i have to deal with two hyper-affectionate cats vying to rub their faces on my flickering fingers – but because it deals with the twin perils of expectation and disappointment.

this time of year – the time between my birthday and the middle of september, the “back to school” season –  is always one that i find to be filled with poignant lessons for me (especially the kind that i should have already learned).  i firmly believe that after the many many years of repeating the cycle of school-summer-school, especially among university graduates (for whom the cycle can occasionally appear endless), one cannot help but be programmed to feel a heightened sense of anticipation (trepidation for some?) and excitement (dread?) in these brief weeks when the weather turns, the heat breaks, and all eyes turn to labour day weekend when the heady days of summer relaxation mark their unavoidable end.

it just so happens that this month, i grabbed a book by one of my favourite authors, the late Robertson Davies, from my shelf – a book that i have not yet read, High Spirits.  this book is a collection of ghost stories that Davies presented to the graduate students of Massey College, where he presided as its founding master, on the events of the annual college christmas parties (i believe through the years 1963 to 1980).  it dawned on me that massey college just so happens to be here in toronto, and that i’ve never seen it, even though it is such a prominent feature in the life of my most beloved author.  so the adventure was to tour the college and marvel at the environs of its ghostly tenants.

i walked the seven or eight kilometers along bloor street to the college from my apartment at high park because the weather was agreeable and the sun not too hot.  i made special note of the shops that had closed, the bar where i have my martinis when i find myself without vodka, and the strip club where an acquaintance said i could get “hooked up” (whatever that meant), and that place where i went for sushi that one time.  finally after an hour or so stroll, i found myself on the university of toronto campus and near the area where massey college is to be found.

this was when the disappointment set in.  i had no idea what to expect.  davies writes of gothic castles and fabled european cities and in a style that calls to mind the most noble and aristocratic of settings, but, in the light of this expecation, the college itself seemed to me impossibly modern and altogether mundane.  designed by ronald j. thom in 1963, the college is highly geometric and rectilinear – bearing virtually no resemblance to a french cathedral, austrian fortress, english manor or any other suitably haunted construct.  on the outside, the building resembled not so much a bastion of higher learning and culture as a public works building or a telephone exchange.  and thus, i struggled – i literally struggled – to fight the feeling of disappointment with my own expectation of what i would find in this experience, but i failed miserably to overcome it.

not until today was i able to put this adventure into a suitable frame of reference.  we all live with expectations of how things are, how they should be, and how we would like them to be, and then rather often, we have to deal with the disappointment that those things are not that way and sometimes that they cannot be that way.  we dread the return to school because our leisurely pursuits are curtailed for another year, but we might equally welcome the new challenges that a new year brings.  we might be eager to return to our beloved campuses after a summer of listlessness, but we might also become disappointed when our fresh new courses turn into the same drudgery of cramming and examinations that we went through a year ago.  surely, it is this way with so very many of the things to which we look forward.  i think that the real lesson to be had here is to learn to revel in the anticipation of a thing for the sake of that excitement, rather than for what promise of pleasure it implies, but then to be equally aware of the thing itself – the object as it finally appears to you – and not to compare that thing with all of its inherent beauty and challenge to the idealized dream that preceded it.  this notion, i shall dub, “living in the moment”, and try and remind myself of its value, even when it applies to such iconic matters as my highly cherished Robertson Davies.

– g

adventure cost:
brunch on a patio near UofT: $16.00
a bottle of water: $1.00
subway ride home: $2.75