18 October 2006

Chanson sans issue

This morning I descended from clouds and slumber in a cozy window seat next to a prim married couple onboard a 757 into a cold and rainy Cold City, where fall has gone the way of the loon, the leaves are off the trees, and it is scheduled to snow tomorrow. At the luggage carousel, sleepy, desultorily smoking a cigarette on my way to the car, sleepy, and into the rush hour traffic headed towards Cold City with a stop (sleepy, natürlich) at chez MacDo for some breakfast (I am rarely up so early, so it is kind of a treat), then onward to coffee, a shower, two long classes and a meeting, it has been one of my more exhausting days of late.

The red eye that brought me back to la tierra del invierno returned me from an academic gathering over the last week and a complicated (travel-wise) side trip to Doctor Town, where I earned my PhD. Wedged between professional commitments and the return to the maison of Chaucer Prof and Philosopher Mom, I have explained and re-explained “what has been going on” for the last three years, so much so that at the end I felt like just handing people my card and saying it was the Reader’s Digest version. Although we all tend to have fairly trim and easily executable narratives about who and where we are on the professional race course, a soundbite that places us in space and time for our fellow egghead travellers, the endless repeating of the narrative left me feeling exhausted and disinterested in my own story. I know, of course, what I’ve been up to. What else is happening out there?

This particular academic gathering, I have now realised, is really my true academic home. Aside from the fact that I have been going now off and on for at least ten years, over that time presenting papers and interviewing for jobs lost to some other and attending meetings, it struck me at one point that I knew a lot of people there: Friends, enemies, and everything in between, hearty greetings both real and forced in the hallways and outside of the concurrent sessions, noting faces and strategic positions and groupings in the hotel bar. Is this what it feels like, to be a woman with a past? It is both comforting and disarming, a trace of the past in real time, the collapsing faces of professors you remember as young once in a seminar somewhere, the changing hairstyles and waistlines and sartorial styles and lovers, as well as the warmth of remembrance, the passion of connection, to have particular (and in some cases peculiar) pasts with people near and far, gathered under the relatively relaxed big tent of a mild Vanity Fair. The stakes seem middle-range, important but not crucial. You can relax.

For those who have walked the runway at the MLA, you know how stressful certain conferences can be. Pop, Dip, Spin, girl, and you better not slip on your heels, because you’ll fall farther than Ann Margaret. From the rictus grins and strong cocktails at the bar to the sweating suits (both men and women) in the lobby chairs, always too low to raise oneself up in a lady-like fashion, the pretentious posturings and black suits and chunky eyeglasses and heels, the neurotic conference hookups (Actual post-coital utterance, not my own: "It's so perfect because we're in totally different fields and we'll never compete with each other!"), and semi-private tears in faux marble bathroom stalls, the MLA is not for the faint of heart. You must be a brave womon to ford that stream. I have done it, and will no doubt do it again, but I do not relish my return.

This past gathering is not that. Instead, it has the quality of a strange and funky family reunion, with “the children” doing the Bus Stop on the lawn while some Loca works the grill and the viejitos y viejitas mind the salad table, waving away flies and charlando-ing. Everyone is there, both in good and in some cases decidedly bad, ways. The gathering, along with my trip “back home” to Doctor Town, did give me the sense of being “placed,” not necessarily in a bad way, but in a collective one, which of course is the very purported value of our academic junkets: to bring us back into focus above and beyond the institutional drudgeries we endure day in and day out. To entertain the professional transcendant. That's the theory, at least. The fact that it rarely happens quite so easily does not seem to dissuade us. You have to work at transcendence, baby, it doesn't just hit you on the head, like the chancla of La Lupe.

One of the brightest moments, the proverbial thrown sling-back kitten heel, I suppose, was meeting with Professor Chicana, one of my closest interlocutors. We have known each other since I was a wee lass back at Prestigious Eastern U, she a grad student and me an intrepid and overly dramatic undergrad with big, big hair, and I managed to catch up to her at the registration counter, resistant as she is to cellular technology. She, in her insouciant casualness of outfit, a rain coat and loose cotton clothing and a roll-aboard (!), which had my friends rolling their eyes but struck me as essentially and wonderfully her. We had the opportunity to have two moments together, both of which were as usual rich encuentros for me. It is funny in some ways to know someone for almost twenty years, and the benefits of her experience and wisdom are for me like finding an oasis after your Land Rover dies in the Outback (and you’ve been walking for days in flip flops and shorts, dust-covered and with blistered lips). I consider her a guiding mentor, even as such a title embarrasses her. She knows my story, and I hers, and within that connection is a certain power, not sentimental but active, vibrant, a live feed. Upon such brevity and energy we continue on. I am reminded of the differences between Spanish and English in this regard: Conocer, to be familiar with, is related but different from saber, to know, and the subtlety of this distinction is not present in English, where we “know” how to build a nuclear weapon as we “know” our mother. Pero la conozco, y ella me conoce, as well as saber-ing in the conventional sense. Which is nice, quite frankly. To be known, as well as to know, is to be the fabulous woman with a past, marching straight into the (shared) future. No woman is an island unto herself, and to be known is to be legendary (or "future legend, upcoming," as the case may be).

From the realm of the personal-professional conocer to the milieu of the synthetic familial conocer was a bit mind blowing. Returning to Doctor Town for the first time in almost three years was a shock. Time marches on, of course, but the campus has changed immensely, buildings raised upon parking lots and new masses of bright-eyed students and the cutesy aesthetic touches so obligatoire now for institutions to be competitive. I’m surprised they haven’t raised a rock-climbing wall at the entrance to campus, to show how “with it” they are. Boo. Philosopher Mom, always the social butterfly, had arranged a series of lunches, brunches, and dinners to meet-and-greet, which was nice but in the end extremely tiring, as I was fighting off a cold and the weather was colder than I remembered October as being. The best times were actually those spent alone, me and my old “family,” including their twins, changing into teenage boys but retaining yet still a trace of their child-selves, strange boy-men playing video games and uttering the occasional foul language but with collections of stuffed animals hidden in their rooms. The echoes of my time in their home at every corner: what was the quality of my life then, so near yet so far? The garden has grown, the neighbors have changed, there are cracks in the ceiling where there weren’t before, the kitchen has been redone, but the front room is as disorganised as ever, filled with monographs and homework and 409 bottles, and their front door remains unlocked, traffic to boys and pets and neighbors and friends and roommates and potential serial killers.

What is the quality of la vie academique? Seemingly, it is maintaining relationships at the interstices, across distance and time, and learning how to keep connections active once separated from the roots of daily contact. We are experts at this, at least most of us, out of necessity more than desire, although it gives our lives a shadow-like quality, traces of the past written across the here and now, faint then strong then faint again. In between returning to my favourite places to eat and all the mandatory (but not joyless) socialising, I was able to schedule a meeting with my Advisor, supportive as usual in a general, generous, deeply intellectual, and meditative way, which I once thought annoying but now find curiously reassuring: life may grow chaotic and unsure but Advisor remains as calmingly placid as ever. I was able to see as well my old department assistant, looking fabulous, who shocked me with the news of her impending retirement. Have I really known her that long? In our brief half-hour, she gave me the rundown on those in and near my graduate cohort, a litany of successes both vaunted and middling, or of disappearance, with very little room in between. Fifteen years ago, who knew? Well, now we know. It was a slightly chilling tour, as well as mildly depressing, shaken off by returning to the cold yet bright October sun, my mission my impending departure.

Today, in my exhaustion and four hours of sleep and mildly disorganised outfit, a colleague remarked that my trip seemed to re-energise me. I was a bit surprised by this, considering I felt like something the cat dragged in, but in the end I suppose I was re-energised, even through my temporary fatigue, by my return to the interstices, my past and present and future(s) reflected in the eyes of those I have known for a long time.


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