The 10th Professor’s Ball
The annual Professor’s Ball for the Mathematics Faculty of Penn State University has been a function for the past nine years to which I had not attended. I wasn’t the type to casually hob-knob with colleagues and engage in phony superficial conversation in the hopes of impressing someone I barely knew with my academic achievements.
This year, its 10th, I was attending. I was up for tenure consideration, a very rare and lucrative offering from Penn State and not attending certainly would have given suitable means for the “powers that be” to put a black mark on my tenure applicability.
I was never very social by nature, thus it was not surprising that my absence all these years wasn’t missed. I had been a professor of Mathematic Logic and Recursion Theory for over a decade now and therefore it would only be fitting that I represent the faculty amongst others of equally elite departments.
Clad in a midnight black tuxedo and casually cradling a martini in my left hand, I surveyed the crowd around me at the idyllic University Club in State College, Pennsylvania.
My dark brown eyes scattered over the multitudes of socialites with their big grins and firm handshakes. Some I recognized, most I didn’t and really had no interest in stimulating conversation with at this point.
Just then, a distinguished looking gray haired gentleman walked in with his right arm raised to chest level, elbow bent to 90 degrees. At first glance, I thought he was a waiter approaching to ask me for a refill of my martini.
The gentleman was certainly no waiter and appeared to have his arm locked with some invisible date’s.
Perturbed by the situation, I approached a lady wearing a dark red off-the-shoulder Gucci evening cocktail dress with long brown hair standing next to me. She reminded me of Sarah Palin.
“Excuse me ma’am, do you know who that gentleman is?”
She smiled at me, her eyes crinkling the skin around them as she did. “Of course. That’s Dr. Ludwig. He teaches post graduate courses in mathematical fluid mechanics, Hilbert spaces, hyperbolic sets, that sort of “out there” stuff. That’s his wife Loretta beside him.”
Pausing a moment I said, “His wife… she isn’t here right now, is she?”
“Of course. She’s got her arm linked with his,” she reassured me. “By the way, I’m Ann Pepper. I teach first year calculus and vector analysis.”
I shook her hand and introduced myself. “Joseph Van Doeren. Logic and Recursion Theory.”
Her eyebrows rose. “Recursion theory? That’s a new one. Do tell.”
Gulping down the last of my martini, I wished to change subjects. “It’s kind of drab and obscure actually, you wouldn’t really be all that enthralled, I don’t imagine. Just one more thing about this Ludwig character, I…I don’t see his wife there. Like, I am the one who’s crazy?”
Pepper patted my right arm. “Dr. Ludwig is a very complex man. A genius most say.”
Stroking my beard I couldn’t help but be blatantly enthralled with this man’s absurdist behavior before me.
He was now engaged in a delicate slow dance with absolutely no one, pausing every now and then to dip and later kiss his “wife” on the cheek.
I looked back at Ms. Pepper to quire more about Ludwig, but she had gone off to socialize with others.
If he’s a genius then I’m a madman, I thought to myself. I couldn’t help but chuckle when I saw Dr. Ludwig introducing Loretta to several of the other guests who reluctantly shook the hand of the air in front of them.
I waited patiently for my chance to meet the man as he jested with his peers and sampled some of the admittedly delicious smoked salmon canapés hors d’oeuvres.
Before I could extend my hand in camaraderie, Ludwig cried, “Dr. Van Doeren! As I live and breathe! My word, it is a pleasure and honor to make your acquaintance, sir. My wife and I recently read your book “Philosophy of Logics” and we feel it is absolutely marvelous!”
“Why, thank you very much, Dr. Ludwig,” I said, surprised at his familiarity with me.
“Oh!” he beamed. “You’re familiar with my name! Which of my publications have you read?”
Embarrassed, my brain scrambled for solutions. I blurted, “Well, there are just too many to mention…”
“Nonsense!” he said with a twinkle in his eye. “I just completed my second, four months ago.”
A waiter came by with satay beef on a skewer. Jamming one in my mouth as fast as I could I muttered, “I was so overcome by its stunning brilliance, the title has slipped my mind.”
Waving his hand flippantly, he dismissed my feeble attempts at authenticity.
“No bother, Dr. Van Doeren. I would like to introduce you to my lovely wife...Loretta.”
“Charmed,” I said, kissing the invisible hand in front of me, play acting for his fantasy.
Dr. Ludwig broke out laughing. “What a remarkable sense of humor Dr. Van Doeren has! Imagine, him kissing your lovely hand when he can plainly see you hold a flute of champagne in one and the most exquisite sushi in the other!”
“Yes! Kidding!” I blurted.”Of course, just kidding!”
As almost a reflex response, Ludwig cocked his head to one side as if someone was whispering in his ear.
“Alright honey. You go. I would like to speak to Dr. Van Doeren in confidence anyway.” He then paused and looked carefully over his shoulder.
He returned his attention to me as he said, “She had to go powder her nose. You know how these ladies are. She’ll be back any moment.”
The man is insane, I thought but instead said, “She’s very lovely.”
“Isn’t she?” He then bent forward and in a conspiratorial tone he muttered, “She’s not much for conversation as I’m sure you can tell.”
“Well,” I began, “The one with the quiet tongue is most beautiful.”
Ludwig beamed. “That’s right! Very good! Who are you quoting?”
I shrugged. “No one. Just my own perception I suppose.” I grabbed a piece of shrimp tempura as the waiter hustled by.
Continuing I said, “You and your lovely spouse have a very special relationship, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh, my word, yes!” the eccentric individual replied. “Everything we do together has a certain magic about it.” He put his hand against his right cheek and leaned towards me. “Our lovemaking is fantastic!” he whispered with enthusiasm.
I coughed, choking on a piece of tempura at his frankness and decided to shift the mode of the conversation.
“Your Loretta...does she work in the faculty?” I asked, fascinated.
“No. Loretta is a model for Manhattan Fashion magazine.”
I was familiar with the periodical. Very trendy, very hip with a high-profile website.
Ludwig’s eyes scanned the crowd for the return of his wife.
“I see,” I said. “Quite a distance from Penn State wouldn’t you say?”
Ludwig shook his head. “Not really, Dr. Van Doeren. She’s always home in time for dinner.” He slipped his arm around the empty space beside him.
“It was my distinct pleasure making your acquaintance this evening.” With a quick jab to my ribs he said, “I think she has had a bit too much to drink.”
“The pleasure was all mine,” I said as he disappeared into the crowd.
I motioned for another cocktail as I reflected on the unique Dr. Ludwig.
Logic and sanity is not Pythagoras or Maxwell-Boltzmann distributions or Freud or Russell’s Paradox. Sanity is seeing things other’s cannot.
With that in mind, I pre-maturely left the 10th Professor’s Ball, not without holding the hand of my new-found date whom I’ll call Cathy.
© Copyright 2016 Steve Balsky. All rights reserved.