March 28, 2006

For real

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.

13 comments:

Mona Buonanotte said...

I hope Chicago Friend gets a naked blog photo!

Yankee T said...

Oh, that sounds like fun!

Jessica said...

Great post - and I completely relate!

I, too, was in Chicago recently - handing out in people's homes and neighborhoods...so much fun!

halloweenlover said...

I felt the same way about my college roommates. It was so strange to see them in their real-life growing up homes with their families. My only understanding of them was as my roommate, so I always loved going home with them.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

Another way in which I want to be like jo(e) when I grow up: you're an academic who works in your hometown. Heck, I'd settle for "home province," or "easy drive from our famlies," at this point, much as I love living in Lotus Land.

susan said...

What a great way to end the conference.

A few years ago I got to go with my best conference friend to a conference in her original hometown. We stayed at her mother's house, and I met some of her growing-up friends. It was really neat to see that part of her life, and to get to see a conference city through the eyes of someone who's lived there.

Teri said...

I just love the names you give to people and places.

And how wonderful to spend time with a friend, and to make a new friend in your frend's wife.

kathy a said...

that's so wonderful! i love seeing friends and colleagues in their native habitats, and meeting their families, seeing their spots.

Not Scott said...

I too have wondered what French Explorer City would look like through certain peoples' eyes. Once again, I'm envious. I still want to see Snowstorm, if only for some context beyond the photos.

jo(e) said...

Scott: I don't think you'd think much of Snowstorm City, but you'd love some of the beautiful natural areas in Snowstorm region. Sooner or later, you will have to plan a visit to this part of the country ....

BeachMama said...

I love putting together friends and their houses. I try to imagine what my friends that live far away houses look like, but until you actually visit you don't get a true sense of where they are. Once you visit them, it puts a new spin on reading their emails or posts. I love it.

Anonymous said...

This is not directly related to your post, but more an overall impression that has been strengthened by reading this post and the other conference posts.

I wonder if you are aware of how warm and open you are. I was remembering that one of the reasons I started reading your blog was that you were an amazing writer, but the reason I continued reading and began commenting was that I felt safe.

As I read your conference posts, I marveled at you meeting people in person you don't know. You really seem trusting and open to others. I find that so refreshing and healing in this time that feels dominated by fear and mistrust.

Sorry for the book, but this has been on my mind as I have read the last week. I really appreciate this space.

SuperB

jo(e) said...

SuperB: Thanks for the nice compliment. It really means a lot to me.