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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Column: Lessons from the Bridge

A recent brush with tragedy on the Golden Gate Bridge over the summer has taught me much about life and society – lessons which, from my perspective as a student of social science, also tie into the current context of events at UC Davis and the UC system: fee hikes, layoffs, furloughs, walk-outs, sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience. These important events will determine the future, or lack thereof, of our university.

The weather was gorgeous that day, and I was relishing that special summer-vacation feeling by relaxing and reading at the Warming Hut Cafe on the Bay near “the Bridge.” It was right about the time I was standing outside of the cafe when a series of dramatic events began to play out on the Bridge, just as I was contemplating the meaning of a famous poem that’s posted near the trail: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.” I’m standing in the same spot on the trail again, on a Friday, four days after the fact, copying the verse into my notepad. The Bridge is totally obscured by heavy fog at present and cannot be seen, though it is making its presence known by the slow bellowing of the fog horns that are stationed under it.

That day, a Monday, had been outwardly bright and cheerful, and was, no doubt, an inspiring day to most visitors – except for two who were tormented by an inner gloom. One had made his seventh trip over the rail, and for him, attracting rescuers, even including a large Coast Guard cutter ship, was becoming routine. Incredibly, another, more impulsive soul was apparently unaware of the person who was already out on the Bridge’s ledge. Making a tragic decision in the wake of a failed love affair, he plunged down and surfaced close enough to the Coast Guard cutter to be rescued alive and was transported to a waiting ambulance on the shore. Tragically, his life’s journey came to an end at the hospital nearby, having been too banged up by the fall to survive.

To me, the “World in a Grain of Sand” verse seemed to sum up so well, in a few phrases, some of the deeply complicated truths I was catching glimpses of as part of an anthropology project I’ve been working on which is focused on the Bridge, both its physical nature and its social function, its “body and soul.”

Standing at the center of the eastern walkway on Wednesday, trying to make some sort of sense out of what happened two days before, I could feel the Bridge bouncing ever so slightly in response to the strong winds. It seemed alive. As I know from my study, the Bridge is part of a complicated system whose parts, including even mass transportation buses and ferries, extend outward for miles. Its soul is spread out around the world in the form of memories, stories and iconic images as part of people’s psyches. To whom, in the cultural sense, does the Bridge “belong?” The City? The State? The people of North America? The world?

Waking from a quick nap in my van parked right at the shore, I see the flag atop the Civil War-era fort under the Bridge being taken down for the day. Only the bottom half of the south tower of the Bridge is visible in the fog, with the span it supports arcing gracefully through it and outward, abruptly disappearing, suspended midair in the mist. Waves crashing into boulders below send bursts of spray that splash onto my windshield, as the sounds of the fog horns under the Bridge continue on.

Universities are cultural bridges of a sort which function as important social systems, too, serving as important institutions of personal transformation for their students. We stand at a crossroads in time, at the onset of the Information Age. Will we, that is, we the constituents of UC Davis as an institution and the UC system as a whole, follow the way of the despondent lover whose cognitive executive function seemed to fail him when he took the fatal leap?

Or will we behave like the crazy person on the ledge? He was able to rely on trustworthy rescuers and was brought to safety, but for us there are no guarantees except for good sense and good reasoning, qualities that nowadays often seem to be in short supply.

BRIAN RILEY wants to know how we can get down from this figurative ledge. Send him your ideas at bkriley@ucdavis.edu.

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