Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Prodigal Daughter Returns

"She read the letter again and again, oblivious to fact that she'd missed her stop fifteen minutes ago." -- Adrian Tomine

I think I have more comebacks than Cher. Maybe as many as Barbara Streisand.

After finally having settled into the new semester with new classes, and after a three week search for a dissertation committee (more on that later) I somehow thought it would be a good idea to take a week-long journey through the Other Part of the Country.

What was I thinking? I now return to a stack of work higher than my 5'2" self, and a blog that I am somehow writing only monthly on, as if we were going back to the days fo the 'zine. Never again. Never travel with so many loose threads dangling.

It was a good and interesting tour of the Other Part of the Country, if strange. I spent two days in Charming Collegiate City, to visit WASPy Privilege Law School and a few friends. While it was wonderful touring Elite Science Institute and its underground tunnels with a cool new acquaintence (Poetic Scientist Guy) and extremely lovely meeting a blog fan (Aspiring Prosecutor Prawf), it was altogether too short a trip. Beautiful Majestic River moved me deeply and I daresay even touched my soul, but I spent far too short a time along its bank. Only in retrospect do I realize that it was a city I could have fallen in love with, if I was the falling in love type. Well, actually I am, just not the love-at-first-sight type, no coup de foudre for me, I am too resistant and contrarian. And I especially balk at falling for the obvious, for the city that supposedly everyone falls in love with, or if my guide happens to love it (and hate my own homestate), well then I am ever more resistant. I do not fall in love with the most popular jock. I do not fall in love with the obvious, objectively handsome dude. I am no lemming, and I do not leap blindly over cliffs' edges.

Still, Charming Collegiate City was lovely. I feel a particular fondness for it, because I spent one of the two days walking about by myself, exploring on my own. It feels "mine" in a way. I took the public transport system myself, but no, I did not miss my stop. I walked around two amazing campuses. I met two wonderful fellow aspiring academics. I had a conversation about T.S. Eliot and Thomas Hardy (and learned the chemical composition of that pink chrystalline stuff on the ground) as I walked along the Neverending Hallway with one; and discussed the vicissititudes of legal academia in a keepin' it real pub (with excellent Cape Cods) with the other. The next day was very simple: a brief tour of the charming streets, neighborhoods, and parks, and a lot of reading indoors while outside, the cold beat back against the windowsills. In retrospect, it was a lovely holiday, but all too short, and I did not see enough--I wish I could have seen some of the more historic sites, buildings, museums, I wish I could have spent time near stranger shores. But in due time. My Avuncular Law Prof friend will be teaching in Charming Collegiate City, and there will be another visit to make.

The second part of my journey was in Big Metropolis, which began auspiciously and ended weirdly. My bus from Charming Collegiate City was an hour late, and yet I managed to meet up with two friends, one coming in from France, the other, from the neighboring state (can not come up with a pseudonym), and we all arrived within 10-15 minutes of each other. Meeting a fellow student blawgger (though he is far more illustrious than I) was, well, awesome. Walking to Beautifully Cinematic Train Station together, I kept looking up at the amazing city skyline, and I felt really happy at my present location and with my present company. Between that beautiful distraction and the animated conversation I was having with Nice Libertarian Law Guy, it's a wonder I wasn't run over by one of the many angry cars. We talked of many things, did the usual law geek small talk of "who's your favorite justice, dead or alive," and said goodbye on a train platform, the stuff of so many movies. It was a great introduction to the city. Yet the rest of the trip was strange, as if I were always on the periphery and never quite in the center, and nothing of the trip was mine. There were no private discoveries, even if there were more days.

Apart from that quintessential Metropolis moment, a long walk along Historic Bridge of Poetry and Prose, and many stops along some charming cafes and bookstores in Boho-Bourgie Village, the rest of the trip was a blur hovering about the edges. I didn't get to go to many typical touristy sites, which is fine, that to me does not define a city (although its skyline does, which is why I'm glad I got to see that from bird's eye view). I lived in Big Bourgie City for three years and never went to the typical places. But towards the end of the trip I gave up on ever really seeing the things that would really move me: the city's public parks and gardens; the statues and plaques that would tell me of my nation's origins, history, and founders; the amazing libraries and museums (I only spent one hour in one museum)--this is what defines a city to me, not just the quotidean, but the historic.

The quotidean is for natives, and I will never be a native of Metropolis. I appreciated the quotidean moments in cafes and bookstores (as they are more to my liking than wasting my time in bars and nightclubs), but it was strange to be on the edge of experience and knowledge. I didn't really feel like I grew to know or live any differently than I could here in Awesome Part of the Country in Liberal College Town next to City by the Sea. I mean, dude, it's not like I'm a rube from the boondocks. Charming cafes and great bookstores are de rigueur where I'm from. And yes, we have great centers of art and culture--perhaps not so many as in Metropolis, but again, it's not like I'm a country mouse. That's the problem with seeing someone else's vision of Metropolis. It can never be your own. That's the problem when someone, in particular a foreigner, is trying to impress you with what impresses him--you are too jaded to be impressed by such simple things you know can be found elsewhere, and he does not know or cannot appreciate the way your country would be signigicant to you. I wanted to experience a historic part of America. I got the contemporary version. I wanted Melville's Metropolis. I got HBO's.

The shopping was impressive, but shopping does not impress me. Even if I didn't take the train to City by the Sea (which has almost every store you could want), with the wonders of internet commerce a fashionable and stylish woman like myself can buy whatever I want from any major pretentious department store or specialty boutique. So it didn't at all excite me that this was the ORIGINAL Expensive Lotion Shop, or the ORIGINAL Bourgie Department Store (there are many). A consumeristic tour of Metropolis meant nothing to me--I wanted to walk through the city's history and take it into me. I wanted to trace my fingertips along plaques and get the thrill of saying in my head "and it was in this very spot that...." or walk a path that was very, very old. I didn't want to say "been there, shopped that." I did a lot of shopping I admit, and so my wallet is as empty as my grasp of that city's history. I could not be impressed, and I think that's why I left the city with so few impressions.

Other than the Bridge, Train Station, and the city skyline, I felt few moments of awe, of being transported from one part of the country to another. And contrary to the expected effect, the quotidean only served to remind me that I was not a native--this was not my coffee spot, this was not my bookstore, and they weren't reason enough for me to contemplate calling this city my own. This is not entirely the fault of my guide, French Dandy Dude, more my own. My heart wasn't receptive, wasn't open to embracing the city, and so without further inducement, it remained closed. I didn't complain much, but it's not in my nature to complain (at least out loud, right away), rather to be taciturn and figure I'll work out my feelings and air my complaints later. Thusly, I write you.

It was just a strange sense of loneliness, ever pervasive, no matter who was at my side or what I was doing. I didn't feel lonely in Charming Collegiate City, despite the fact that I spent so many hours alone (and often lost). I was lonely in Metropolis whether I had company or not. Indeed, when my friend French Dandy Dude continued his cavorting at trendy bars in Metropolis one night after a big group dinner with half interesting and nice, half pretentious and kind of annoying people, I went home by myself. Unfortunately, I lent him my last $20, and thus my cab fare, so I had to walk 20 blocks home at midnight in Metropolis by myself. It was a bitter, but not lonely walk. If anything, I felt as though I could finally breathe free, be myself, and not feel obligated to entertain or support anyone else. I like being alone, I like walking alone. Of course, alone at midnight in a strange city is not my favorite kind of alone, but it was better than the option of forcing myself to be convivial and spend time (and money) I would rather not spend. I am unapologetically an introvert, and a person who likes to be comfortably settled by 1 am. You're only as old as you act, and I act like a freakin' 80 year old woman.

Lest you think I was abandoned, the parting was mutual. I told him to go if he wanted. I knew he wanted to (there was a cute girl involved), and I knew he would go, with only a modicum of hesitation. I knew his choice before he said it out loud, I knew there was never really a choice, but that I would have to acquiesce one way or the other, to either being alone in my hotel room or feeling alone among a crowd of strangers. I chose the former. I didn't ask him to choose me (I am not so demanding, and I do not delude myself regarding the attractiveness of my company) as I highly doubted he choose me, and of course he didn't. I knew that I didn't want to go. I wanted rest, I wanted quiet, I wanted to be myself. And with our divergent desires, we parted as friends, if friendship may be tinged with wariness. It is an interesting experiment: give someone, friend or lover (enlightening test if the former, potentially heartbreaking test if the latter) a choice between yourself (your comfort, safety, or hell, company) and something possibly more diverting, and see what they choose. I myself think there is never really a choice, except the obvious right one, but there you go. I expect that from myself, but not from anyone else. It is a learned cynicism, like adaptive evolutionary biology.

It is always good to see where you stand, and to not delude yourself of your own importance, and it helps you put everything into perspective. It's like getting an adjustment in your eye prescription. "Ah," you say, seeing clearly for the first time. "So this is the way it is." We are thankfully just friends (there is no quantum reality in which we could be otherwise, except as "not friends"), so I am bemused, but not brokenhearted. It is a good test. Sometimes, there is never really a choice, only a Faustian sort of bargain. Shrug. It's good to know how much to give and how much you can expect to receive, how much you can expect each other to compromise in the name of friendship. I have stopped compromising, for my own part--too old, too self-aware, too unwilling to change unless change may be expected in return. The econometrics of friendship (or love, but love has higher stakes)--you only give or invest as much as you expect in returns, and if the dividends don't come, well then. The IPO does not always match the eventual value of the stock. So it's good to take stock and see the lay of the land.

Don't be indignant for my sake though, like I said, I'm not angry--I told him to go--I'm just wary. I got home fine, he did his best to show me the City he loves and what he loved about it--it just wasn't my version. But I appreciate his efforts and his particular view. And I did get home safe, and we did pass the weekend amiably and with some enjoyment. And I did learn a few things about myself, or at least I really know them now. Let me just say, that though I am deficient in height and muscle tone, I am a badass. I don't fear the dark, I don't immediately fear strangers (and strangers of color) of posing a danger, and when I walk alone I am alert and aware of my surroundings and walk boldly. I hardly get walked anywhere (not out of ardent feminism, more an incident of gentlemen being few and far between even if you seek them), so I have learned to be tough. But walking alone in a foreign city is entirely different. I have participated in several "Take Back The Night" rape vigils in my lifetime, and now I know, you can never really take back the night. I got back to the hotel safely. But that night, I resolved to not let the city impose on me. I resolved to cut my losses, and let this trip be the peripheral study it was going to be. I didn't care anymore what we did or saw, figuring that if I come back, it will be a different city and I will be a different person. After the midnight walk, I just wanted to go home. I wanted to go home, and I realize with greater conviction where home is, every time I leave it. It is here, in Awesome Part of the Country, in the great City by the Sea.

And so now I'm back home, with a consistent internet connection, and back to you all. I embrace you, I kiss the ground. I am home again.