Mudd and the Towering Inferno of Flames

Sunday, September 18, 2011

I hate how much I missed Mudd. How as a student I could go there after a long day of classes and meetings and be comforted by the feeling that everyone there was in it together, working for this one collective goal. In a lot of ways, I liked being there more than my own house. My favorite place was this spiritually dead room, a window-less cube full of computer monitors and desk chairs. No color, no human interaction, hardly a sound. I couldn’t conceive of a better place to study.

Now that I’m here again it’s like an addict falling off the wagon: the brilliant glow of the fluorescent lights drawing me in, the smell of charcoal and pine outside filling my lungs like the flame of a kerosene lamp. And then there are the stars, lucid and unfettered, burning up in the sky. I could go to Mudd at my absolute lowest, and still feel better knowing that someone in there knew my name. Now, the same sentiment holds true, even if it's done in obscurity.

But if Mudd itself is full of the peculiar liveliness used to comfort individuals, then leaving at night, once the study carrels have emptied and the computer screens are left glowering at vacant seats, has a certain loneliness to it. Walking out into the stark night air—jacket zipped, bag thrown over my shoulder—I am immediately reminded of that senior year. It is a sensation so vivid it shocks me to realize it’s only a memory. Every detail, from the smoke-laced outlines at the side of the ramp down to the cold rush in my hands as I stoop to unlock my bike, is the same.

*

I saw her for the first time last week. It was midday, almost lunch, and there she was sitting at a bench with friends, speaking in loud gestures, the rise and fall of her hands like she were conducting a symphony. Before that moment, I never experienced what it felt like to have to avoid someone—how it was suddenly inappropriate now to make conversation with a person who, not long ago, had occupied an enormous part of my life. We dated prior to me leaving to go to China, and in the ensuing aftermath that followed, haven't so much as exchanged a word since.

Her friends stood up to leave and, against my better social etiquette, I walked up to her, not knowing what to say but knowing that I had to say something. It was short-lived, a string of empty pleasantries, and pretty soon the conversation was over, and I was walking not towards her but away. The whole episode felt so unsettling, how the underlying force of our convictions were laid dormant. Why is it that love always feels most alive when it's past its end, fraught with the sudden, crippling onset of its nonexistence? The passion that comes with all rejection—a sudden departure, a loss of life. Like how in some cultures even mourning can't be done quietly—a funeral pyre set in a torrential blaze, fiery and vivid and raw.

I hate when things fall apart. Even worse, when they fall apart and you don't understand why. I emailed my dad about it. He told me that sooner or later, you learn to let go. Sooner or later, he wrote, you learn that there's not always closure that is satisfactory. Sometimes things kind of sour and rot and smell bad. Sometimes you just have to walk away.

*

I saw her again yesterday, this time at Mudd. She used to tolerate my time at the library, but joked that I spent more time there than I did with her. This time, I managed not to talk to her. We were now just two people in the world, our lives detached from one another's, and I realized that it didn't have to be this long, drawn-out sadness. I remembered what my dad had written: If she deigns to see you, by all means, but be aware that it may actually be re-traumatizing yourself. Try not to be attached to the outcome. Give it your best. And if it doesn't work out, then let it out talking to me, or chopping wood, or sparring. But don't go back to the well again and again to be re-wounded.

Two years ago she left a note by my bike. Tucked into the metal crux of the handlebars, a slip of notebook paper, folded and creased, that read, simply: “Saw your bike and thought of you. Don’t stay out studying too late. Miss you. Love, C.” That should have been my cue to go and see her that night, but knowing me I probably didn’t. Here’s what happened: I pocketed the note, rode my bike south and west (the opposite direction of her dorm), walked upstairs to my warm, dimly-lit room, and, with the smell of sandalwood and marijuana piping in from my roommate's screened-in balcony, I went to sleep.

Weeks and months passed, but every day since then I kept checking my bike. Edging down the library ramp, hands bristling from the cold, it was the same routine—first the handlebars, then the front wheel spokes, even the narrow slit underneath the seat. Each time I left the library—fingers clutching the bike keys—hoping in vain for some trace of her. The fruitless game I played. I still do.

*

This is a piece of creative non-fiction, part of a new experimental direction I'm taking with my blog about short semi-fictionalized vignettes from my daily life, lightly polished and greatly embellished for online consumption.

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Our Need to Rebuild Is the Reason Everything Falls Apart

Sunday, September 4, 2011

It's my third night at the Feve in a row. I've been here just over a week and I'm batting well over .500. Or, to put it another way: I've been to the Feve more nights than I haven't. It doesn't hurt that there's only one real bar in town, but it still doesn't bode well for my steadfast conviction that China had made me an alcoholic and not the other way around.

Every night at the Feve starts out about the same: a handful of fresh acquaintances, stools nestled around a large wooden table, and a pitcher of beer so black you couldn't run a light through it. Small talk and, if the situation required, a small order of tots to follow. Then, the inevitable parting of ways, the block-and-a-half shuffle home, and Kent State's NPR-affiliate to lull me to bed.


East meets Feve. From left to right: Gerald, David, and myself (photo courtesy of Gerald Lee).

I was talking about the situation with my friend Martha online. She asked me how in just a few days I had already connected with enough people to merit that many trips to the Feve. I told her that it wasn't a coincidence—that meeting every new contact took a great deal of effort on my part. After all, I had to practically construct my entire social life from the ground up. “I feel like I have to go to every social obligation I'm invited to,” I told her, “so I have a chance of building up a base.” “Wow,” she replied without the slightest hint of surprise, “you really network fast.”

I wanted to explain that it didn't matter if I was good or bad at networking or whether or not I even liked to do it. It just wasn't an option for me—I'm an extroverted person and when I'm not around other people for too long I start to lose it. “I can't help it,” I said, “it gets lonely up in this ivory tower.” I paused. I knew I had used the wrong analogy and was sure she would call me on it. “Well this ivory tower seems to have a lot of other towers in its neighborhood,” she quipped, not missing a beat. “It's an ivory tower colony,” I joked, “with no zoning restrictions.”

My own ivory tower is located on the southeastern fringes of campus. It's not to say that I don't feel disconnected from the concerns of non-campus life, but it's so easy to get caught up in my own tailspin—work, school, friendships to maintain. Some of the isolation is self-imposed but most is a product of circumstance. There are “young professionals” (what we call ourselves) in other departments in the college—ResEd, Athletics, Admissions, the MRC—but there's little opportunity for contact, and I certainly never had my radar out for them when I was still a student.

Being older than almost everyone doesn't help either. That, and having to strike a balance between my so-called grown-up friends and my student friends. Then again, the distinction may be a moot point. On my fourth day here I went to a karaoke cook-out event for incoming international students and the staff from the MRC was up there right alongside the new first-years singing “Bad Romance” and doing the Cha Cha Slide.

It felt like looking at Oberlin through the eyes of a stranger. All of the buildings had a foreign newness to them, and I had been exploring them slowly, so as not to embarrass my former self. The people had changed too. No longer could I simply expect to have friends based on geography and shared experience. It made me realize how lucky I had been in Taigu. Oberlin felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, like most of the rest of the world. I wouldn't be able just to fall into friendships here; I'd really have to work for them.


Peters Hall, with newly renovated $1.4 million slate-and-copper roof.

The fall from celebrity to dime-a-dozen has played out like your classic fall from grace, marred by all the telltale signs of recovery and addiction. I realized that I had invariably switched roles overnight—instead of being the person whose door everyone else was trying to knock down, I had become the archetypal “rando” who shows up unannounced and bearing gifts at four in the afternoon, appealing for nothing more than genuine friendship.

The night I went to the Feve with Jerry and Dave—two of the six foreigners I had lived with in China—a new art installation was up on the second floor. They had always been characteristically out there, even when I was a student, but this one seemed odder than most. Next to a collection of multi-colored lighters forming the outline of the African continent there hung a simple blue-and-white ceramic tile, on which, in all lower-case, was scribbled the line, our need to rebuild is the reason everything falls apart.

I wondered, if we stopped trying so hard to create anew, maybe all that should be lasting in our lives would cease to come undone? The network I had gone to great lengths to craft in my four years couldn't have felt more achingly distant. Looking around the bar that night, some faces looked familiar and others I just convinced myself were. Either way, it didn't stop me from trying to make conversation. I seem to be doing that a lot lately—giving my phone number out to almost anyone who seems interesting, hoping only that they might call me back.

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Acceptance

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Yesterday was freshmen move-in day. North Professor Street, which until yesterday had still been razed and largely unpaved, was now home to double-parked cars heaped along the two-way road and spilling over into Stevenson parking lot. There were parents with U-Hauls and cargo carriers lugging boxes into dorms, stacks of cardboard piled out in dumpsters for pick-up, and the dozen or so restaurants along Main Street each with a line wrapped around the block during lunchtime. Compared with only a few days ago, it felt like this great accession, a veritable explosion of people arriving all at once.

I finally understood why townies tend to spurn the college, and why students who choose to stay in Oberlin for the summer lament the start of the school year. Oberlin is so refreshingly peaceful with most of its student body away that the transition back to hectic, pedestrian calamity doesn't come without its share of misgivings. Of course, the summer state of utopia wouldn't be sustainable even if the college shut down tomorrow, but it certainly is a romantic notion—to have this sleepy little town all to yourself.

As part of my new job, I was put in charge of working the Resource Fair, a gathering of outreach groups, local businesses and campus organizations that jostle for real estate in the collective mind space of the incoming class. Shansi pulled all the stops—free pens, pencils, books, water bottles, and tote bags—and for three hours, I had my fill of people watching. It was interesting to see the first-years in action—some still stooped behind their parents, others with the leadership reigns clumsily in hand, and still more boundless and free, eager to shirk, at long last, the final remaining vestige of their pre-college lives.

That night there was a buffet dinner in Wilder Bowl for new students and their families. Naturally, I made an appearance, a large take-away Tupperware container at the ready. The green was alive—the tension so thick one could hammer it out with an icepick. Everyone seemed to be waiting, preparing for this one collective exhale, for the moment when all the goodbyes had been said, all the first introductions made, all the wild-eyed probing and propositioning underway, and when all the strange, horrible, shocking, unbelievable theories about college life could finally be put to the test.

I told myself that if I tried hard enough I could fit in here. After all, aside from a BA, what truly separated me from this sea of unknowns—a girl with a shaved head, a guy with biker shorts and a denim jacket, two girls in sun dresses and wedges, a pony-tailed boy with purple nail polish and a “Steak 'n Shake” hat? Sometimes I don't feel my own age, and at other times, it forces itself on me like a creep at a dive bar. Some people looked too old, and others, just about what you'd expect. But for all of them, it was too early to tell: in what ways Oberlin would come to mold their self-image at the end of four years.

That sea of unknowns followed me into the inaugural orientation concert at Finney Chapel. The room was packed, with overflow seating available down the street in Warner Concert Hall. Both President Krislov and Dean Stull made long, meandering speeches, and everything in me wanted to believe that they were talking to me when they spoke—of the limitless opportunities, the expectations of greatness, the proud tradition we would serve to uphold. But they weren't. Like a scorned older child I had been cast aside, neglected at the unwelcome arrival of a new sibling. Now I had only the legacies of other alumni to aspire, their influence so great as to cast a shadow over my very existence.

It was the most engrossing concert I had attended in recent memory. It's not to say that the performances weren't great, but I think it speaks more to the time I had gone without hearing live music, without the sensation of feeling it in every part of my body—back arched, spine tingling. In two hours, I hardly so much as shifted my weight. I found myself immeasurably drawn to each musician on stage—to the way their hands moved, the arch of their fingers, the gape of their mouth. Insisting on going alone, of doing this simply and irrefutably for me, I reveled in music as the great equalizer, in the feeling that we were all one collective audience in the face of its grandeur.

Pretty soon parents and their kids began filing out. On the walk back home, I remembered where I was six years ago, rounding the end of my first day as an Oberlin student. My parents dropped me off at my dorm after the concert and it would be the last time they would know me as a son, a boy on his path to adulthood. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry, and although I didn't cry then, I felt it now, the tears welling in my eyes like storm water. Suddenly I was that parent, knowing that his time had passed, letting go of what had come before to allow for all the greatness to follow.

Before the concert, I was sitting in the Japanese garden outside of Finney Chapel, where the class of 1996 had dedicated a memorial to those Oberlin students who had given their lives during WWII. Among a long row of plaques listing names and graduation years followed by the letters USAAF and AUS, I saw one, on the far right, with the postscript “AMT '40, Navy, Japan.” And I thought to myself, if in the annals of history, Oberlin could come to accept him, then they'll find a way to accept me too. I didn't need to be someone I wasn't to fit in. Maybe being exactly who I am would have to suffice.

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