Climbing the Cathedral of Learning


The following appeared in The Pitt News, 2000.

Photograph of the Cathedral of Learning,

taken on my very first roll of film in Pittsburgh.

Breathe in, breathe out.

First step, second, third, eighth and then I’m up the first flight. No problem. Breathe in—ascend the second flight, okay—then the third, breathe out.

No matter what route you take, the fourth flour is always trouble. You have to walk through corridors to find where the stairwell resumes, and now the stairs wrap around each other. But I’m doing well, just a moist forehead, breathing in and out. My legs feel good from thigh to calf, and I’m thinking, “I could do this for a couple weeks and I’ll be back in shape. I just need to lay off the croutons.”

Sixth floor already? Breathing harder, feeling beads of sweat, but six floors! I’m going to 36, determined, so I’m already one-sixth of the way there. I’ve passed the familiar English department—maybe I should have stopped. But no, can’t pause now, already got the blood flowing. Yeah, a solid week of this and I’ll start to feel the muscles growing.

Eighth floor, tenth, fourteenth—the German department, where I used to practice conjugations with my professor. That was two years ago, but now I”m 15 floors up. Sixteen, the theater department. I wonder when they’re holding auditions? Maybe I could stop. The information’s useful, after all. And 16 floors! That means I”m almost halfway there. I’m just two floors below half, why shouldn’t I take a brief…?

But 17 is just up there, and now I’m at eighteen. See, you schlep, don’t you feel better knowing you’ve climbed 50 percent of the way? And now 20 floors is, er, 54 percent of the way, or close to that anyway, and gee, I guess I should’ve brought a towel. I’m sweating like a dog. I wonder how fast a dog would climb 36 flights. I wonder if my dad got me a flight home for Thanksgiving. Great, now I’m hungry.

Twenty-five! Where did the last three stories go? I was thinking about dogs, and then—of course! That’s the way to do it. I need to divert my attention from—ow! Sweat in the eye! God, that’s disgusting. And now it’s on my glasses. Why am I wearing them, anyway? There’s nothing to see in a stairwell. But at 28 floors, what’s the use of cleaning them off? Man, I’m tired.

Twenty-nine floors. Okay, this is good. Just seven to go. One step, two steps, three. Halfway up 29. How come everything is so slow all of a sudden? It’s like gravity just got more intense, or someone turned up the thermostat, or—

Thirty floors! Just six more flights and I stop by the water fountain. Maybe they’ll have something to drink at the Honors College. That’s thirty-five, only five flights up, but one after that and I make thirty-six. Then I can walk back down. But why is 36 so important, anyway? It’s an arbitrary number. Thirty-five is just fine. I’ll stop at 35 and as punishment I won’t eat a single crouton at dinner.

But now that I think about it, are croutons necessarily bad? They’re just crushed bread, and bread is healthy. It’s full of fiber and… well, other stuff. And…

Thirty-one? I could’ve sworn I’d just climbed three flights. Somebody painted the wrong number on the door. I’ll bet there’s a prankster around here, some kid who likes to confuse people like me. I’ll bet he’s 12 years old and steals lunch money. Come to think of it, I didn’t eat lunch, did I? that was a bad idea. I should’ve eaten lunch, waited an hour, and then come here. In fact, I should eat lunch right now. Thirty-two floors are good enough. Hell, I was gonna stop at sixteen. Surely I’ve reconciled with 16 more.

What am I saying? I’m an Isenberg, for heaven’s sake! I’ve fenced epee in two Junior Olympics! Dad swims 20 laps every morning, and Mom teaches aerobics! Surely I can surmount a measly skyscraper! What are 36 floors to me? Has college made me so soft? Where is my pride, my spirit?

Thirty-three. I think I’m gonna die. I’m feeling faint. I’m not breathing. The world is spinning. What was I thinking? I’m not up to this! I’ve been an addict to all-you-can-eat-cafeteria food for months now! My arteries are made of cheese! My heart is palpitating! The stairwell is spinning around and around.

Thirty-four—Great-Grandma, is that you?

Thirty-five—one last, vainglorious effort! Up one step, two, three, and there it is! Thirty-six! Gotta make it, gotta make…

I stumble into the wall. I look out the window at the Pittsburgh skyline—at the people, ant-like, thirty-six floors below. The throbbing in my temples slows. Breathe in, breathe out.

I think I’ll take the elevator down.

Below, my video “Rapid Ascent,”

filmed in 2012. The tradition of climbing the Cathedral for exercise

continues to this day.