When I was in high school, my friends and I fancied ourselves masters of a sarcastic parlance only we fully understood. We coded our language in opposites, like “yeah right, this bikini makes me look real skinny,” when we meant “totally fat, just look at the cellulite on my thighs, you guys!” A lot of it was inflection: “I like your dad, he’s real niii-hice” could mean “you know, your dad’s a real bible-thumping dick” (which is what it usually meant with my dad). Anyway, one of our favorites was “TYL,” which meant “Ten Years Later,” or, translated into Newport Beach teen talk, “you couldn’t possibly be taking longer if David Bowie was about to make out with you, ya big loser.”
So, I know, TYL since my last post. So sue me, I was trying to keep my job and finish some stuff. Still trying, never finished.
Also: TYL since I was living in Ithaca, New York. Or, to be precise: eleven years since I last arrived in this town, nine since I left. Which is weirdly unbelievable, in the way that the movement of time itself becomes hard to believe as you move from definitely young to middle-er age.* So much has happened in the intervening years, and yet (can’t see a way around the cliché here) when I get back here it really seems like just the other day that I left.
I actually remember the day I left, in May 2003. I had hauled my Penske truck up to campus and parked it outside the building, White Hall, that housed “my” office. Loaded the truck up with boxes of books and papers that had probably doubled in the time I was doing my post-doc, and then sat on this bench and said a prayerful goodbye and thank you to the place and the opportunity.
It was one of those rare moments when you actually have a sense of the significance of something. My 2-year paid post-doc at Cornell was, I remember thinking on that bench, like having been invited to live in a distant, rich uncle’s castle, where you got to live in luxurious surroundings and no one paid you much heed. You had the run of the place and it was freedom and comfort and once-in-a-lifetime. I swam in the quarries, drank the wine, ate the food, slept in (and worked a lot), was lonely some, learned to cook, made friends, fumbled my way through the aftermath of September 11th, trying to figure out what it meant to be an American and a citizen of the world, and an academic. It certainly hadn’t been stress-free, but it was for sure one of the best things in my life up to that point. I knew it had been profound. When I set off back for Denver, I had no idea how/whether the next chapter would come into focus (in fact, it turned out to be a total dark-night-of-the-soul year).
Who would have thought that 9 years later almost to the week I’d be returning for a paid, 6-week course in the famous summer School of Criticism and Theory, where I’d get to be a student–which, by now, had become a tremendous, rare relief. That I would have traded in the Honda I bought in Ithaca for, finally, a new one and come back to campus tenured, with a fair amount under my belt and a pretty damn happy life in Denver. Lots of ups and downs in between, you all know, but over time, it turned out, I was building a life.
Yesterday I saw the campus again for the first time. I felt as awed as when I first visited at the beauty and bounty of this Ivy League outpost, and surprised by my own much greater confidence, weatheredness, humility, fragility/strength. I had to set up the self-timer when I saw the bench, because capturing these moments seems much more urgent now:
Even waiting for that image to upload I think, it’s not that it’s more urgent all the time, to capture the moment, because there’s no possible way when you’re in the middle of your 80 m.p.h. life that you can. That’s why this blog has been TYL for four years (and maybe also because I’m still a big loser). I couldn’t always capture it while I was trying to do the million things on time/in time. But in those fleeting moments when I catch my breath it seems critical to get it down somehow. Because I am 10 years younger now than I will be in a decade! Because time is flying by and I am a forty-four year-old person on this planet already, and I was thirty-three just a second ago, and my eighteen year-old students did not seem that much younger than me then, but now they really do. I actually texted one of my first students, with whom I am still vaguely in touch, yesterday, to tell him I was revisiting campus, and he replied that he’d just done the same thing. Sometimes you have to go back, see what’s happened, and even if it’s good and really good it will freak you the hell out and simultaneously inspire a good kind of stillness inside you.
Anyway, no way to capture all of the existential profundity I’m feeling in pictures or words. Meanwhile, life goes on: Paco, who was with me 10 years ago and 1 week ago is missing back in Denver, and I’m worried. He has been a tremendous comfort to me for a dozen years, and yet I know that all this ends in ways we can’t always control. And emails have to be written, and books read, and things finished, and dishes done. And it does really come down to this moment, and are we paying attention, because in just a split sec it’s going to be TYL?
* I once shot an oral history of my maternal grandmother on videotape. One of the few things I distinctly remember her talking about is how time moves differently with each decade. “When you’re fifteen,” she told me, “you think sixteen will NEVER come. But when you’re 20, time starts moving faster. When you’re 30, a year goes by before you realize it. When you’re sixty, a whole decade goes by in the blink of an eye.” She laughed, but she was clearly, visibly, stunned by this.