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THE COMMONS ROOM

THE FINE LINE

Standing in the tail end of a C-130 military plane flying 3,000 feet over Pitt Stadium one brisk Saturday afternoon in September, one foot away from the edge of the open cargo ramp with nothing keeping me from flying into the air but the canvas harness I wore attached to a small metal clamp on the floor of the plane, I began to wonder about probabilities. The US Army's Parachute Team was jumping into Pitt Stadium as part of the pre-game show for the Pitt/Ohio State game. I, for some reason I couldn't readily recall, had come along for the ride, the token female as it turned out.

There is a very fine line between probable and possible. At that moment, standing on the edge, I could barely tell the difference between the two. But I knew, somehow, I would feel much, much better if I stuck to the probable side of the situation and left the possibilities alone. And I did. Though they had teased me in the hangar, the seven men on the team were probably not really going to grab me as they jumped out of the plane. The plane was probably not going to crash. The harness was probably not going to break. I was probably not going to fall. And though the circling motion of the plane was getting to my stomach, I was probably not going to throw up.

The shadow of the plane looked so small as it traced our path across the city of Pittsburgh, over the Monongahela River and the streets of Oakland, over Schenley Park and back to Oakland--circling around and around, waiting for the right wind and the right angle for the paratroopers to land perfectly on their 50-yard-line mark. I looked eye-to-eye with the Goodyear blimp and down on the Cathedral of Learning, down on Pitt Stadium, which looked like a child's board game from my bird's-eye view. If the skydivers yelled as they leapt from the edge of the plane, I couldn't hear them; all sound was drowned by the huge white noise of the engine. They didn't seem to feel any pain, or fear for that matter, as if jumping into the air thousands of feet above the ground was as simple and as safe as diving into the deep end of a swimming pool. They disappeared quickly out of sight, little black dots becoming smaller and smaller until they pulled their black- and-gold-striped chutes and floated slowly to the field. Caught again in that margin between the probable and the possible, I found myself thinking, "Hey, I could do this. I could jump."

But I didn't jump. And I heard later that Pitt didn't win the game. My jumping out of that plane was about as probable as Pitt beating Ohio State. But who knows about next time? Anything's possible. --Vicki Glembocki


SERENI-TEA

The cupboard was bare the rainy Saturday morning I was to attend a Pitt Informal Program lecture on the Japanese tea ceremony. Bare of coffee, that is, which is all that really matters to me in the morning. I rifled desperately through cabinets and drawers. There must be coffee in here somewhere, I thought. A free sample of instant, or one of those coffee-in-a-tea bag things from a camping trip. I would have taken anything.

The phone rang--the babysitter calling to say her son had been sick all night, and now she wasn't feeling so good. Great. Still in my nightgown, I scoured my address book. A good friend came through in a pinch.

At her house, my two-year-old clung to me like a baby monkey. Luckily, two guinea pigs running loose through the dining room distracted her long enough for me to slip out. With minutes to spare, I dropped by a coffee shop, picking up a cup to go.

By the time I got to Oakland, the rain had turned into a downpour. Using my legal pad as a rain bonnet, I ran all the way from my car to the Frick Fine Arts Building.

Soaked and breathless, I ducked into the back of the classroom under cover of darkness while instructor Lisa Morrisette fiddled with the slide projector. About 20 people listened as Morrisette, a history of art and architecture teaching fellow, told how she stumbled upon the cultural phenomenon of the tea ceremony while in Japan.

"A group of women asked if I'd been to tea yet," she said. "I'd been visiting shrines and landmarks all over, but I hadn't been to tea. They couldn't believe I'd missed something so important."

They took her to tea at once, and so began Morrisette's study of the Japanese tea ceremony. She visited tea huts, tea rooms, and tea gardens all over the country, participated in several kinds of tea ceremonies, and eventually performed the ritual herself for her Japanese hosts. By no means a "tea scholar," as those who devote their careers to the study of the ritual are called, Morrisette has nonetheless looked at this tradition to deepen her understanding of Japanese culture.

Sixteenth-century Japanese had worries, she said. Shogun warriors were busy waging war and seizing land and political power. The commoners were living hand-to-mouth. And the aristocrats were busy watching their backs.

Morrisette flashed a slide of a classic Japanese tea service on the screen--a simple, rough clay pot, caddy, whisk, and cup.

Then she clicked to the next slide--a tea garden with granite boulders jutting decisively from a pond. "Adjust your perspective," Morrisette instructed.

Cocking my head to one side, I could see that the scene looked like a river cutting through jagged mountains--a raw, new world in miniature.

"The journey through the garden to the hut removes you from the world," Morrisette told us. "The stepping stones lead you."

As Morrisette led the class through this intricate ceremony, I imagined myself there, picking my way through the garden from stone to stone, their uneven placement drawing my eyes down to notice intricate patterns of moss, like forest-green paint brushed deliberately on canvas. I progressed to the waiting bench where the tools of purification, a basin of water and ladle, were set out before me. I carefully bathed each hand and rinsed out my mouth. Ready to resume my journey, I looked ahead and saw the sketchy outlines of the tea hut through the mask of a massive pine tree, its trunk bent and gnarled, boughs splaying out to each side like a bonsai.

I hesitated when I reached the child-sized door of the hut.

"You must get down and crawl into the tea house," Morrisette said. "It is a humbling experience--like a rebirth, a process of re-creation."

Once inside, she said, there are subtle blends of tea to savor, and perhaps a painting or poetry to admire. One sixteenth-century tea master once displayed only a simple bamboo vase holding a begonia bud--an exercise in perspective, to train the eye toward every line and curve of the flower's sparse beauty.

Then and today, the structure and materials of the tea house constitute a work of art. From the tatami mats on the floor to the wooden beams dividing the walls in rectangular symmetry to the variety of textures, tea huts are designed to show harmony with nature. "But it's a perfected nature. A view of something wild and unkempt. An attempt to bring order to chaos," Morrisette noted.

I tried to think of something in Western culture that could compare. A shared experience of simplistic beauty that illuminates everyday life. Wine tasting, evenings at the pub, and even English tea came to mind, but none offer the Japanese tea ceremony's ability to transform perspective, focus the mind, and cultivate tranquility.

The lecture ran long, and my kids were waiting. As I got in my car, the day was still grey, and the rain still pouring. But I found myself looking for the spaces between the storm clouds in my landscape, so often dominated by the obvious, the loudest, and the largest. As I drove away, I resolved to buy a pretty teapot and some good tea, and invite a good friend to come over and share a calming moment.--Valerie R. Gregg



NIGHT OF THE PANTHER

The young freshman men milling around the William Pitt Union look at one another out of the corners of their eyes. Their freshly washed hair is still a little damp, their cheeks a bit flushed, their Looney Tunes ties a little too tight. It is the Night of the Panther and they are ready for some action. They are on the prowl--sort of.

Lantern Night, the 75-year-old tradition of welcoming freshman women to Pitt, is getting underway in the union as well. While scores of young women in dresses and heels flood into the ballroom, the smaller number of men gathered for the first-ever Night of the Panther make small talk with each other. They stand outside the Assembly Room, where they are supposed to meet, watching their female classmates rush by. The women smile and glance at them.

"You fellas picked a good place to stand," says a man in a navy blue jacket and a Pitt Panther tie. The freshmen smirk and laugh a little. They are aware of the attention they are attracting from the young women. They stand a little taller.

Inside the Assembly Room, freshmen line the walls, barely speaking. Light sounds from Lantern Night, next door, waft into the Assembly Room, while Night of the Panther remains still and silent.

Finally Director of Student Activities Joe Cavalla enters the room and welcomes the young men. He says that he hopes Night of the Panther will catch on and become as successful as Lantern Night, which has attracted more than 400 women this year. In the background, we can hear the young women shuffling out of the building. The freshmen who are closest to the door have trouble ignoring the young women. Those in the back crane their necks.

Cavalla explains the events of the evening: Together the men will walk over to the Masonic Temple. There they will hear a number of speakers and will be "pinned" with a panther pin. This pin will symbolize their strength throughout their years at Pitt. The freshman men will join the freshman women in the Cathedral of Learning for a reception.

Then, with much confusion, he lines everyone up in twos, and the procession begins--complete with walkie-talkies, police escorts, and photographers. As the men enter the Masonic Temple, the Pitt Marching Band plays a fanfare.

The Masonic Temple was built in 1914 with two walls-- the outer wall, which is the face of the building, and an inner wall.

From the outside the building appears only to have three floors, but on the inside there are four floors and two mezzanines. On the second and third floors, there are special rooms of different architectural styles: Tudor, Gothic, Egyptian, and Corinthian. But the stoic facade of the building hides the beauty inside. The Masonic Temple is a building within a building.

I find myself wondering what lurks between the walls. Sitting in the center room, listening to the Pitt Men's Glee Club sing the Pitt Fight Song in perfect harmony, I look up to the dark mezzanine above us. I can imagine the ghosts of Masons looking down and nodding their approval. The jars of gold panther pins at the front of the room sparkle, tempting the eyes.

The time comes for the men to be pinned. As each receives his pin, he cannot resist looking at it while walking back to his seat. Some smile and run their fingers over the pin, feeling the panther's smooth, cool, metallic body. During the closing of the ceremony, the voices of these young men rise up strongly in singing the Alma Mater.

As the men leave the Masonic Temple for the Cathedral of Learning, they are talking and laughing with one another. They have loosened their ties. Baseball hats appear magically from their pockets. Over at the Cathedral, the men walk in on Lantern Night, which is still in progress. As the women begin to sing the Alma Mater, the men look at their shoes and shuffle their feet, too embarrassed to watch or join in.

When the reception begins, the buffet tables are crowded. The men and women brush each other's shoulders. Then they form small groups and talk, huddled in the carved stone nooks and crannies of the Commons Room, all the while sneaking glances at each other. Slowly they mix, and their excited conversations fill the warm air and echo off the stone walls.--Elizabeth Starr Miller



BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?
OR A LOCK PICK?

Robert Gallagher, director of Pitt's Counseling Center, tells this self-effacing story as part of his "Humor and Stress Reduction" workshop:

"I was coming out of work into a driving rainstorm. I had my raincoat on, umbrella in hand, and I was carrying a briefcase and a gym bag. I stopped to buy a newspaper from a vending machine, but when the door closed, it caught my raincoat. It was right by a bus stop, so I

tried to be nonchalant as I yanked at my coat. I realized I had to open the door again--but I didn't have 35 cents. So I stood there in the rain, hoping someone else would buy a paper and set me free.

"Finally, a friend walked by. I told him what happened and asked to borrow the money. 'No need to borrow it,' he said. 'This story is worth 35 cents.'

"But, it turns out, he only had a quarter. So he began to solicit people on the street, asking them for a dime. They would look at him, then look at me, and scurry away, like it was a scam or something. Somebody finally stopped and contributed the 10 cents.

"I was lucky to get out of there."


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