Once was a time, in the country of Acadan, the oldest and wisest professor at the University of Acadan was feeling quite miserable.
The season of convocation was upon the land; excitement and optimism wafted like fragrance in the Acadanian air. For students and faculty alike, it was a time of hope, of great expectations. But for the oldest and wisest professor, loved and admired by all, it brought only unhappiness.
Every year at this time, when words like "gowns," "mortar-boards," "limousines," and "parties" were trending on Twitter, while others such as "student loans," "unemployment," and "recession" were in temporary abeyance, doubt and dejection would descend upon the good professor. Did I do all I could for my students, was the question tormenting him. Was I Socratic enough, did I encourage dialogue and debate? Or did I just keep droning on? Did I demonstrate that it was not so much a matter of learning to think, as it was of learning not to think rubbish?
This year, however, something other than the usual doubt was disturbing him. His being endured restless days and sleepless nights, racked by an anguish he could not name. The haggard face and dark circles around his eyes began to cause his wife grave concern.
"Come now, Professor," she said tenderly. She always called him Professor when they were alone; in company she used his first name. "Will you not tell me what ails you?"
"I would, my love, I would, if I but knew."
"My poor, darling Professor," she comforted, stroking his hand. "Must you fret? You've covered the prescribed texts, your students have written the essays and exams. Did you not mark them all, with copious comments above and beyond the call of duty, to share your vast learning and luminous mind?"
"I did, I did – all that and more," sighed the professor, taking her hand and raising it to his lips. "And perhaps that's the reason for my distress – that I followed the curriculum with morbid zeal, hermetically sealing off my classroom from the world outside."
"Now, now, Professor, you always say second-guessing is a mug's game."
"Forgive me, my love. Convocation Day looms, and I dread to face the flower of Acadan's youth with my troubled conscience."
They went to bed, he to toss and turn, she to catch what little sleep she could amid the turbulence. Shortly after midnight, however, the professor fell into an unquiet sleep filled with dreams and apparitions.
A figure floated above his bed. In ceremonial robes red as a cardinal's. And a mortar board with a gold tassel. All swept backward as though in flight, superhero-style. The long white hair and flowing beard were those of an Old Testament prophet, and the professor was thinking, in his dream, that it looked remarkably like Robertson Davies, gloriously airborne.
The figure spoke, in a voice that sounded foreboding: "Hearken unto me, for I am the Spirit of Convocation. Be thou not afraid."
"Afraid I'm not," said the professor. "What I am is troubled about my students."
"Damn it," muttered the Spirit of Convocation, "I must be losing my mojo." He tried the doomsday voice again: "Tis thine anxiety for thy students that summons me hither. Verily I say unto thee, wise art thou–"
The Spirit broke off: "Excuse me, but would you mind if I dropped all this 'thee' and 'thou' business and spoke plainly?"
"I would welcome it," said the professor. "You're not doing it too well."
"Okay, so here's the deal. You are old, you are wise, and that's a good thing. But learning is lifelong, and I've got things to teach you. You'll have to hitch a ride with me – me and my magic golden tassel."
"Sounds like you're making me an offer I can't refuse," said the professor. He gripped the tassel and, in a flash, they were out the bedroom window, soaring through the sky.
The clouds were thin, the night air refreshing. City lights twinkled below but there were no familiar landmarks. Awestruck at this mode of transport, the professor spoke with more deference than he had shown earlier: "O great Spirit, is this Acadan we are flying over?"
"Yes and no. It's but one possible Acadan. Before this night is done, you will behold many versions of it."
Through space and time they flew, the sky lightened, and suddenly it was mid-morning. Below them, next to the shimmering lake, was a railway station. "The central terminus, I presume," said the professor.
"Yes," said the Spirit, "and we are right on time. That's the Gravy Train just pulling in, bringing sustenance for body and soul. It ministers to the hungry and poor, the less fortunate, who seek a helping hand. The Gravy Train travels from sea to sea to sea, stopping wherever required."
"And this Acadan is rich enough to pay for it?"
"No richer than any other. At one time, 'gravy' was a pejorative, but this Acadan reclaimed the word. Here, the citizens and their elected leaders are enlightened. Kindness and compassion, to them, is like breathing out and breathing in. But much remains to be done. Soon, they will launch the Sauce-Boat, to complement the Gravy Train."
"Still," said the professor, "tax dollars aren't limitless."
"It's a matter of priorities. And they have chosen the Gravy Train over fighter jets."
The pair flew on. The professor spotted a Ferris wheel by the water's edge. "Aha, an amusement park. This enlightened Acadan provides well."
"I'm afraid things are not what they seem. Navigating the warp and weft of time, we've now arrived in a different version of Acadan. This place is the result of greed, vanity, sycophancy and ideology."
"All because of a Ferris wheel?"
"That's what it used to be, before it was converted into a Snipers' Wheel. Part of the security apparatus of this world-class city. It not only revolves, it rotates, giving it a 360-degree view, horizon to horizon, clear sight-lines for marksmen. Comes in handy when world leaders hold summits to make the world a safer place. Every street can be targeted accurately, curfews enforced to perfection – pepper spray is so yesterday in this town."
The professor felt a shiver run down his spine. "How did things come to such a pass?"
"It's always a function of microscopic increments in citizen apathy. But you ain't seen nothing yet. B-b-baby, you ain't seen n-n-nothing yet."
A singing spirit, thought the professor, just my luck. They were soaring again, up into the clouds, before descending near a hospital building. A long line of weary, ill-clad people clutching hypodermic syringes waited at the gates.
"Now that's an enlightened policy," said the professor. "A needle-exchange program for addicts."
"They're not addicts," said the Spirit. "They are patients, waiting for treatment. Things are in such dire straits, they must bring their own supplies and syringes, often forced to choose between food and medicine."
"And this happened because – ?"
"Visionary leaders wanted lower taxes; health care was privatized. Now the industry even has the right to drum up business by releasing viruses into the population."
"No! That can't be true!"
"The Spirit of Convocation neither fibs nor exaggerates."
The professor sank to his knees but the Spirit briskly pulled him up: "No time to dilly-dally."
They arrived next at what appeared to be an enormous exam hall: row upon row of desks occupied by people with their heads down, writing furiously.
"Welcome to the Hall of the New Census," said the Spirit. "This incarnation of Acadan abolished the old census forms that would gather statistics to help foster peace, order and good government."
"And the new forms – ?"
"More like opinion polls and market surveys. They're not compulsory, per se, just tied in with government benefits: no form, no benefits. They come in various lengths, like hot dogs: regular, foot-long, extra-extra long. The bigger you go, the better your benefits."
The professor peered over someone's shoulder to glance at the questions:
(1) Do you agree that government has no business in the gunrooms of the nation?
(2) Do you support the Surveillance Bill titled "Protecting Citizens By Spying On What They Read, Write and Think?" If you answer "No," explain in 10 words or less why you support child pornographers.
(3) Do you agree that prisons exist to punish criminals, not mollycoddle them? If you answer "No," you obviously enjoy hugging thugs – go to the next question.
(4) Ministers travel by planes, trains, search-and-rescue choppers, and limos, working themselves to the bone for the good of the nation. Should their mobility be restricted?
(5) If you had been living in 1939, would you have supported going to war against Hitler, or preferred to side with Evil?
The professor turned away. "I can read no more, it turns my stomach."
"We'll take a copy with us," said the Spirit. "For later."
"Can we go home now?"
And the Spirit sang: "You ain't seen nothing yet. B-b-baby, you ain't seen n-n-nothing yet." They set course for a large complex of buildings, the grandest thus far. "Last stop: the offices of the Minister for Kindness and Compassion."
"Oh thank goodness – it's the enlightened Acadan again."
"Actually, we're now in the most cynical version. Normally, caring and concern would inform everything that a government should do. But this Acadan has so lost its way, a Department for Kindness and Compassion is how it keeps up appearances. Think of it as a Potemkin ministry."
"What tyrant seized power to unleash such mendacity? How could this happen?"
"I've already answered that question – there is no tyrant, just a pathetic little villain called citizen apathy."
"Home, I beg you, take me home."
"Okey-dokey. Only one more stop."
"You said that the last time! I can't take any more!" But they were aloft already, approaching a modest mansion and courtyard that projected calm and serenity.
"What horrors hide behind this tranquil facade, I wonder," said the professor.
"None," said the Spirit. "We're back in the progressive Acadan. At the Ministry of Doubting, Self-Questioning and Open-Mindedness. An indispensable department. Without it, sooner or later, every society disgorges that embarrassing specimen, the leader who claims to have all the correct answers."
"I, more than most, know the value of doubting and questioning," said the professor. "But perhaps you risk creating a bunch of dithering do-nothings."
"Checks and balances are in place: at the first sign of trouble the affected individual must attend a full-text performance of Hamlet, all four-and-a-half hours."
The professor nodded approvingly. "Well, Spirit, you've shown me a lot. But what are the chances of such things really coming to pass in my Acadan?"
The Spirit shrugged: "Probability does not concern me, only the possibility. My mission is complete, for you are now acquainted with the dangers of citizen apathy. The ivory tower remains above the fray at its own peril."
"That's all very well," said the professor. "But if I were to follow your advice, I'd be accused of bringing the squalor of partisan politics into the sacred groves of Academe."
"Then, professor, you must, with the utmost decorum, present to your accusers your digitus medius. Or, as it is known in the vernacular, your middle finger."
What a curious suggestion, thought the professor, and tried it, timidly. He did it again, this time with a flourish. That felt good, felt liberating.
The Spirit reprimanded him: "You do realize I was speaking figuratively."
Bashful, and also a little disappointed, the professor retired his finger. They started on the return flight, back to bed.
He awakened just after dawn. Such a strange dream, he thought. What brought it on, I wonder? He lay in bed, pondering the question, and decided it had to be his overwrought condition of the last few days.
As he threw off the bedclothes to rise, the duvet dislodged a sheet of paper that was caught in its folds. It floated to the floor. He retrieved the page, curious to see what it was, and read the heading: "New Census Extra-Long Form."
His blood ran cold; he shivered.
At the same time, the despair and torment of recent days began evaporating. He felt alive again, and with a sense of purpose. He knew now what it was that he must not leave undone.