I've been going to academic conferences for twelve years now, and I think that there is an interesting dynamic with conference friendships. My conference friends are people I see only once each year. For five days, we eat long meals together, stay up late talking, and explore whatever city the conference is held in. We sit together at sessions, gather to hear speakers, or amble through museums, talking. We spend hours walking around aimlessly before choosing what a restaurant for our evening meal. The rest of the year, our contact is limited to phone calls and emails, the occasional real letter written on paper.
The conference context of these friendships sometimes gives me the odd sort of illusion that my conference friends live in hotels, spend their days talking about books and idea, eat all their meals in restaurants, and spend every evening in a bar somewhere, with their name tags dangling permanently from their necks. So it's cool when I get to visit a conference friend's hometown, and see that he does indeed have some kind of normal life that involves more than grading papers.
Last week, I got to visit the home of Chicago Friend, a colleague I've been friends with for years. Chicago Friend, as you might imagine, lives somewhere in the vicinity of the Big Midwestern City with the Baseball Team that Always Loses. After three days of being trapped in a hotel with a bunch of academics, I was eager to spend the afternoon hanging out with Chicago Friend and his family. I got to see his home, his neighborhood, and his very cute four-year-old daughter, Tiger Lily, who was not the least bit shy. I met his wife for the first time ever – and we hit it off right away, both of us talking non-stop so that Chicago Friend never got a word in edgewise. He was basically reduced to the role of sandwich-making, serving us food as we chatted about everything from Barbie dolls to pet possums. Chicago Friend has told me for years that his wife and I would like each other, and we did.
One of the things Chicago Friend and I have in common is that we are both academics who actually live in our hometowns, which is relatively rare. He gave me a tour of French Explorer City, showing me both the prison and the high school, which looked eerily similar, the house where he grew up, the house where his parents live now, and the house where his grandmother lives. I even met the mailman! Earlier in the week, he had taken me to the upscale restaurant where his brother worked as a chef, so I got to meet his brother. His brother looked and sounded so much like him – him, but not him – and had such great energy, that I laughed every time he came out to talk to us.
Perhaps it is because I myself am so hopelessly connected to the landscape where I was born -- but I really love getting a glimpse of all these parts of a friend’s life: his family, his neighborhood, his home. I like seeing his bookshelves, his kitchen, the computer where he works. All of these things help that email correspondence feel that much more grounded and real.