June 9, 2010

How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?

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My clearest memory of graduation weekend is walking over to Olin from the English tent on the north side of the Arts Quad just after receiving my diploma. All I had with me were my wallet and my car keys. As if to make up for the weather, the isolation and the grading, Cornell provides an embarrassing amount of cinematic moments. So, on cue, as I walked up the slight rise to the library, the wind picked up and the sun lit the Quad. I was suddenly aware of the weight of the keys in my hand and the steady knowledge that if I wanted to I could have gone anywhere, done anything.In the five years since we graduated, I have friends who have lived in Mozambique and Romania, London and Qatar. That whole time, I’ve been in Iowa City — and, to give myself some credit as a fellow adventurer, I’m from New Jersey. I had no idea where Iowa was in May 2005 — writing about movies that most people have never seen, hoping to earn a degree that The New York Times has just informed me is worthless. College is a rousing, linear coming-of-age story with joyful, tearful climaxes. Grad school, by contrast, is an indie flick with annoying characters and no plot that lasts hours longer than it needs to.Working at a college without actually being in college gives you an odd sense of suspension and motionlessness. It inspires instant nostalgia and an accelerating sense of your own aging. The kids leave every year like clockwork while you stay put, your cultural references ever more out of date (seriously, I have students who have never seen The Princess Bride). At the same time, graduate school is notorious for inducing eternal adolescence and terminal social awkwardness, which in turn brings on existential despair and viral video parodies that mock said despair in such obscure ways that they’re only funny to other graduate students. The thing is, I’m here, five years into a six-year doctorate in film studies, because I want to be. After all, I get paid to do what I love. I’m even assured that at some point I’ll be paid more than minimum wage.Iowa City is exactly what would happen to Ithaca if you filled in all the gorges, scaled the hills back to Midwest size, changed the lake for a river, hockey for football and endured the loss of great coffee for the sake of an amazing book store. So being here, being at the university but not really engulfed in its rhythms, gives me a disorienting feeling of constant déjà vu; I keep turning around expecting to see the clock tower. But this strange sense of far away / so close — because grad school is just college on steroids but also its diametric opposite, and they make the exact same bumper stickers about Tompkins County and Johnson Country, but if you drive four hours from Ithaca you’re in Boston or New York and if you drive four hours from here you’re in Nebraska — has helped me figure out the way I feel about college.In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel De Certeau talks about the way walking in the city is more aligned with talking and storytelling than vision. In streets you know well, the buildings narrate, whispering all their long history. There’s even a bit of magic; you can see what’s not there anymore and remember why it used to be. In the end, there are places so full you cannot explain them, only shrug and say: “I feel good here.”Going to college at Cornell was like that. I can’t “tell you about my experience.” I can only remind you of the ache in your legs at 9:03 a.m. when you’re only halfway up the steps to Baker Hall. The glow of accomplishment from a well-sunk beruit ball and a well-written paper. And the way that the temperature drops 10 degrees and you can breathe again when you step into Goldwin Smith on a hot day. Making your first friends in the rain, at the end of a disastrous night  — and living down the block from them five years later. Arguing, at 2:30 a.m., about what The Sun will say tomorrow, with people who will later keep in touch from Mozambique. Standing on a hill, your hands almost empty, ready to set out running.Erica Stein ’05 was a member of The Sun’s staff from 2001-05 and associate editor 04-05. She is a PhD candidate in Film Studies at the University of Iowa, where she is currently completing her dissertation about movies and tall buildings in a town that has neither.

Original Author: Erica Stein