In Oakland, California, talk of higher education begins with Berkeley — the University of California at Berkeley. For decades the school has been a hotbed of social conscience and progressive ideals.
I've been there several times. And the place does bring your senses to the surface. It has a buzz, a soft hum, like social machinery at work.
For some, however, a visit to Berkeley can be as foreign as a visit to Buenos Aires.
A sign near campus reads, "Help us conserve. Our toilets use only recycled rain water." That's not something you see in places like Pittsburgh.
And young mothers don't look for places to "nurse" at Berkeley, they look for "lactation" areas.
Attitudes are cutting edge.
I enjoy Berkeley. It puts my nervous system on high alert and challenges my lazy thinking.
But as a man edging toward 70, I tend to prize serenity over stimulation.
And so, when in Oakland, I make a point of visiting Holy Names University.
Holy Names is a Catholic school (the holy names being "Jesus" and "Mary"). It's tucked into a wooded hillside, the kind of landscape that gave "Oakland" its name. In fact, the steep climb from building to building feels a little like walking the Stations of the Cross. At one point I thought I'd have to hire a Sherpa.
Those wishing to walk the official Stations of the Cross, of course, can find them in McLean Chapel, the attractive but understated heart of campus life.
The last time I was there (in March) images of butterflies and blossoms had been set about as a "spring theme." Holy water bubbled from an impressive-looking sphere and two large flat-screen TVs near the altar guaranteed everyone a front row seat.
No one was around (Easter weekend and all) and I felt I'd entered an ancient monastery. Of course the students themselves are hardly medieval. They're just as progressive as their peers. They've simply decided to bring Catholicism along with them.
In the foyer, saintly looking portraits of "modern" heroes adorn the wall: Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, as well as more secular-minded personalities such as Harvey Milk and Steve Biko. And set apart from those are images and biographies of the school's founders and benefactors.
Holy Names was originally a monastery founded by six Canadian nuns. Over the years it expanded into the private university it is today.
Yet even on the busiest days, that old monastic tranquility is easy to find. Almost every building overlooks the San Francisco Bay. While standing on the deck of McLean Chapel, for example, a pilgrim feels he can see forever (except for the fog, of course).
I don't know when I'll be headed back to the Bay Area, but I may visit Berkeley again, just to get a booster shot of adrenaline.
I know for sure, however, that I'll be dropping by Holy Names University.
I always leave the campus feeling serene.
And need that.
For guys like me, it seems, serenity is getting harder and harder to come by.