Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Day Napoleon Shagnon Shook My Hand - A Fable

We all must, with an implicitly mournful impulse, look back on certain pivotal moments of our lives with deep-felt sensations of regret. Not the pangful regret of something left partially undone, the regret of a faded early love or of the parking lot that has lately supplanted the fruit orchard next door – I refer instead to that acutely piercing regret (laden with exquisitely-caustic guilt) of a moment when we truly and completely fucked up. I will, here, attempt to describe one of the few moments in my life I remember with active, imperial shame. I do this partly to purge my conscience, but mostly I desire to provide a universally useful example of the unintended, unmeant failures we all endure from time to time.

I graduated from high school in 2002, with no definite post-ed plans beyond wanting to be a writer. That summer I decided I'd attend the local community college (Northwestern Michigan) for a few probing semesters, take a few english & maths classes, orient myself & maybe (finally) get down to writing the book I kept starting & aborting, with different titles & different casts of characters each time. Later in the summer, during a trip to Florida, I suffered a nervous breakdown, resulting in several years of disoriented mental & physical health, with spotty periods of near-invalidism. It sucked. Already on a variety of mood-stabilizers, my medication quotient went through the roof. This made me increasingly lethargic, disturbed my sleep routine, & (once my eating patterns stabilized) accelerated my weight-gain. In the midst of this psychic imbroglio I was still determined to go to NMC, & took reduced courseloads, eventually fighting through my inner cacodaemons & going off to Knox College to earn my Bachelors. However, it was during my tenure at NMC that I endured the intense, pitiful failure I seek to relate. In summary: I fell asleep during an hour-long presentation & Q&A hosted by Napoleon Shagnon.

Now, for those of you unfamiliar with this remarkable (& somewhat controversial) man, Dr. Shagnon is an anthropologist of innumerable accomplishments, not the least of which involve his extensive empathic fieldwork amongst the Yąnomamö Indians of Brazil. I'd decided to take an anthropology course out of curiosity, & much of the curriculum involved watching battered VHS tapes chronicling Shagnon's time amongst these indigenous people, who remain highly threatened by the incursions of modernity. I was entranced at the way he melded himself (& his film crew, astonishingly) into this deeply isolate, antipodean culture, with no concept of Western society or technology; at the very least, Shagnon's bravery is staggering. He knows the language of the tribe, knows their structures and mythologies, & conducts himself with a tangible human respect, displaying awesome elasticity in his adoption of a completely foreign episteme. Ultimately his work served to humanize an entire society of supposed 'savages,' raised worldwide awareness of the Amazonian logging crisis, & provided the study-materia for generations of students. He is, in short, a human being of astonishing accomplishments; &, when our professor announced that Dr. Shagnon had retired to the Traverse City region & would be willing to come in and conduct a talk, I was floored.

Now, this was not a class possessed of a fiery interest in the topic. We're talking Anthro 101, the bare dust-caked bones. Most of the students were taking it in order to satisfy a requirement. I responded to the news with intense enthusiasm, & determined I would try to maintain an active dialogue during Shagnon's talk. At this point the event was still a few weeks away; in the interim, I had a sudden resurgence of health-related paranoia, resulting in general anxiety & sleeplessness. Even when getting a good night's sleep, it was sometimes tough for me to stay awake during the day (I didn't contextualize my constant exhaustion as a result of the pills until much later). However, all the excuses in the world can't atone for the fact that, when the day of the talk arrived, I was preternaturally dead on my feet, my brain numb & fogged. I drove to the college, got into the classroom, plunked myself down & promptly lost myself to a persistent miasma. Napoleon Shagnon entered, looking hunched, gray & intent; I perceived a carefully-controlled bitterness underlying his character as he proceeded to lecture to a group of openly bored teenagers. I hoved in & out of consciousness, my head sometimes lolling backward insolently, unwittingly; I was horrified at my inability to stay awake, to focus on his words, the basic gist of which I can't even remotely recall. I do recall a few snippets from the subsequent tortuous question-&-answer session: prodded on by our professor, the students lackadaisically lobbed a few remedial queries, Dr. Shagnon's eyes flaring as he patiently answered questions already abundantly addressed in his videos, of which the class displayed a noted ignorance. I tried to participate, but can't vouch for my own coherence; the entire experience is a shameful, inchoate blear. After class I caught up with Dr. Shagnon in the parking lot & thanked him very sincerely & guiltily for coming to give the talk. He accepted my thanks & shook my hand, though I imagine he was somewhat puzzled at such profuse gratitude erupting from the nodding moron in the back corner. I went home, collapsed, slept.

The years have come & gone, a myriad of experiences have washed over me, yet I find myself inextricably drawn back to this one great failing. To be incapable of staying awake during a speech by a man you respect made me feel like a traitor, gave me fears of self-falsehood. I've since digested fully what occurred, have forgiven myself microscopically, yet occasionally the macroscopic specter of regret steals up on me, & I'm forced to face-palm at myself. Thankfully, Dr. Shagnon is yet alive, & potentially living in the Traverse City area; perhaps I still have a chance to apologize to him in person. Though I know (or at least hope) he hasn't thought of me once since that day.