Awakened by the mounting ambient noise of a Hong Kong morning my night fogged mind reminds me that I am having my sixth birthday in this exotic city. I lay there, taking in the cacophonous asymphony of traffic, jackhammers and clattering trams. It occurs to me that I could never have predicted that I would come to adopting this city.
Eons ago, in the Summer before I was to set off to college as the first in my extended family to carry the Italian-American (meat)ball into the intellectual stratosphere of higher education, I was reading my ass off trying to get an angle on what I might take as a major. Coming from a Jesuit all boys liberal arts high school with 4 years of Latin, 3 years of Greek, two years of French doesn’t exactly point the way to the practical side of life. There was also letters in 3 varsity sports, but I knew I had peaked as an athlete in high school. I needed guidance, but it seemed that Jesuit guidance counselors had a tendency to stress Jesuit colleges. And, insidiously, they had made these institutions co-ed! I took the bait. But majoring in coeds would be a disaster.
So, being a reader, I hit the books in hope of some direction. I didn’t know anything about Psych and so I took up Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life. But a guy who did little more for four years translating foreign languages and running around the playing fields and courts didn’t need instruction in unfulfilled sexual desires, hallucinations and the stuff that (moist) dreams are made of. Anyway, psychoanalysts were on the verge of losing their well-paid fifty-minute hours to Valium. Next came a book called The Hidden Persuaders, by Vance Packard. It was about advertising and subliminal persuasion. I was intrigued, maybe because it came right after Freud, but it felt sleazy and manipulative (decades later that was confirmed as I watched Mad Men). So I picked up Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, the first alarm in what we familiarly call the environmental movement and the threat of global warming. But to a teenager environmental catastrophe seemed remote (hadn’t we just gone through the whole nuclear “duck and cover” business?). That summer I also ploughed through some Steinbeck, A.J. Cronin and Orwell.
These last authors were supposed to be more “entertaining,” a reward for the more instrumental reading to find a major and a “profession.” But in retrospect they were the ones who shaped my value set. The Roman Catholic Church professes a certain concern with the poor and the disadvantaged. In grade school we were always sending money for “pagan babies” in the South Pacific and, later, the Jesuits were famous for their missions among the destitute all over the world. But there was always that suspicion that the Church was really out to make converts and were, particularly in places like South America, just another arm of colonialism. And don’t bring up that saintly Mother Theresa thing.
So by the start of college I could discern some formation of my value set. In that I recognized it was too secular to align comfortably with my RC upbringing. So something had to give. Ironically, by the time I started attending a Jesuit college I was heading out the (left) side door of the Catholic Church. But I still didn’t have some place—a major—to direct my newfound secular values. First year, I floundered, laconically dabbling in more Greek and Latin, blowing a Math class and cruising to a 2.1 GPA, not a good number for a guy who had earned all those “first honors” in high school. Maybe it was the distraction of the coeds, the hi-jinks and goofing off in the dorm, the burn out from a far more demanding high school. But I had to get some direction fast or I was going to be the first in my family to get into college and flunk out of college.
The social sciences came to the rescue (and they had the best looking girls). We had nothing like them in high school and the course offerings we got in college were not that great, but they came into my consciousness right at the time that social issues were coming, like a typhoon, onto the front pages and television screens of the nation. It was 1959 and the civil rights revolution was in full swing; it was the eve of the infamous 60s, and feminism, Vietnam, and the liberal policies of The Great Society loomed. Heck, even Vatican II was on the horizon (John 23s apertura a sinestra to let some fresh air into the sweaty cleavage of Holy Mother Church); the vernacular mass, and you could play Beatles songs during the offertory. John had moved it up to the late 18th Century, but the arrival of the birth control pill was far too modern for it to abide and “Holy Mother Church” been spiraling backward into a reactionary abyss ever since.
So it was the coincidence (and reciprocity) of secularity of the times and my secular normative personal renaissance that saved my bacon and provided the critical posture and faculty through which I have since engaged the world. I didn’t earn any honors finishing college, but I gave my parents a graduation to go to and had found some direction to try to apply all that liberal arts education. Amazingly, I also found a beautiful, sweet coed to agree to marry me (but that’s its own story). I needed a framework that would apply social sciences to social policy, and so the City—the City of Man—the most complex and protean social invention, offered the greatest interest and most enduring challenge. That, too, came somewhat by accident: leaving Syracuse University’s campus after an interview that convinced me that an MA in Economics (really mostly econometrics in those days) was too numerical and too remote from the “real” world, I happened to be passing the School of Architecture precisely at the moment I came to its Masters in Regional Planning Program while flipping through the catalogue. The proverbial “hand of Providence” wasn’t guiding my thumb, but randomness sometimes provides its “guidance.” From there it didn’t seem quite like destiny that I should ply my trade in academe, but hindsight makes it seem rather logical. I am more certain it was no divine plan. I would do it again, although, along the way, I have glimpsed other possibilities, but none that involve, among many others, putting one’s hands in a stranger’s mouth at 8AM, selling toxic assets or any false hopes, or promoting anything that presumes I think I know what’s best for your “immortal soul.”
Laying here as Hong Kong and I come fully awake I realized that all this was an existential trajectory I could never have imagined or predicted. Here I was, in town to see if I can get my screenplay of my book that was inspired by Hong Kong made into a movie, but also excited about giving a public lecture at Hong Kong based on the field I stopped teaching. It’s a supreme good fortune to still have some dots to connect.
© 2011, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.1.2011)