To be perfectly honest, I don’t have that many great memories around my time at Vanderbilt. Not that the ones I do have aren’t great, but there just aren’t that many of them, because of how I wound up spending way too much time back in Birmingham indulging my toxic relationship. I can only remember attending two actual football games in three years, even though I know there must have been more. I remember a handful of departmental team outings – to the movies once or twice, to the Oak Room, bowling, two or three random house parties or dinners. Mostly I just remember being – whether on campus at the Overcup Oak or the computer lab at Payne Hall, or walking distance at SATCO or Boston Market, or at one of the malls or just wandering around the Opryland Hotel in search of that Disney World vibe. It was just the fact of being in Nashville, being at another school, feeling like I had found this alternate world that wasn’t bounded by Jefferson County Alabama. One where I was happier than I’d ever been in undergrad. Like I’d stepped out of my own time into a better one.
I know in the past I’ve said that Nashville felt like home on day one in a way no other place ever did, but upon further review I’d like to extend and revise my remarks. See, it was Vanderbilt that felt like home on day one. It just happened to be in Nashville, which added to the novelty of it all because I was on a college campus I hadn’t already been visiting weekly since 1978 or so. But Vanderbilt was a highly-regarded academic institution where I’d been awarded a scholarship and was being left to my own devices without the burden of being in the same town or having felt like I flopped to my second choice. It was, simply put, the fulfillment of my life’s work. No wonder it felt like home.
So when the bubble burst and I came back to earth – and then had to start all over and be rebuilt completely anew somewhere else – Vanderbilt sort of went by the boards. I was vaguely aware of them getting off to that great start in football in 2005 (only to come back to earth hard) or reaching his-and-hers Sweet Sixteens in 2004, but my actual undergrad and Alabama football held at least as much of my attention throughout my time in DC. (When the Skins weren’t soaking it all up. Or NASCAR, how the hell did that happen. For that matter how did I never make it to one Skins game in seven seasons in Arlington?) It was only once I’d spent some serious time in Silicon Valley, caught between Berkeley on one side and Shallow Alto on the other, that I gravitated back toward my consolation-prize M.A. as something more than just degree laundering.
Thing is, my Vanderbilt stuff in recent years has been tangentially related to my time there at best. I’m not in contact with any of the Herd, my old colleagues and cohorts, or any of the faculty I kinda sorta not-really worked with. I’m not involved with my field of study at all, never have been since leaving. I’ve been sporadically involved with the San Francisco alumni club, though I’m largely out of the demographic for that, and of course there’s the blog-and-Twitter content which has become more sparse than ever. I’ve been back since graduation, obviously, but for the first couple or three times it was just a bookstore run with someone else in tow. That 2012 football game was my first trip back alone since I left alone in 1997, and I think it was the echoes of that which I felt more than any real “it’s like I’ve never been away.” Or more accurately, it was as if, having become a devoted fan of some foreign soccer team, I finally got to visit their stadium in their own country for an actual game. Except for the ring on my finger, I could just as easily have been one of those rare precious sidewalk alums, someone who picked Vanderbilt out of a hat with no connection other than wanting to support them.
Which has always been kind of a tough nut to crack. I’ve never settled on any team I wanted to root for without some sort of connection. I think that was what made the ten-year search for a Premier League team so inconclusive; it required me to have a nagging attachment to Fulham, attend an actual home match, and see their ultimate promotion back to the PL to give me a confirmed rooting interest. I had my wife for Cal, I had the Irish pub and its song connections for Celtic, I had political science and my then-girlfriend’s grandfather for the Skins before I ever landed in DC. Vanderbilt was something I went back to at the moment when Bama was a steaming pile and I’d finally entirely disavowed my undergrad, a time when I needed some connection to which I could feel like I had a legitimate claim.
It’s gone kind of sideways in recent years. It doesn’t help that the general toxicity of Twitter has bled into that account as well, but my billet on the blog was football, and it’s become intolerable to be a regular correspondent for a team that has absolutely no shot in its conference, in a sport that embodies the worst of college athletics and may be on the same course as boxing for what it does to the health and welfare of its participants. In a world where the Dores can field three other legitimate national championship contenders in other sports, there’s no percentage in signing up to get your brains beat out in hopes that maybe this is the year football can maybe reach .500 somehow.
I mean, if you think about it, how much of my Vanderbilt life nowadays actually existed when I was there? There was no Twitter. There were no blogs. There was barely a USENET presence. No one had ever heard of “Anchor Down” or “Who Ya Wit” and the three-finger gesture didn’t exist except as a Serbian nationalist sign. Vanderbilt, for me, since 2007 – and especially since 2010 – has existed mainly as a way for me to have something to claim to belong to, something I can point to when people say “tell me about yourself.” It’s become an attempt to reach back and fish something out of the black hole, to built some kind of ersatz college experience that could stand in for seven years of trying and failing to have what I’d always wanted and twenty more of chasing behind it. And somewhere in the last year, the college thing became something I learned to stop really caring that much about. College happened, it didn’t work out like I hoped, and there’s nothing for it but to walk on and do whatever is next.
In fact, there’s an argument to be made for Vanderbilt not as college-laundering, but as the first job out of college. Sure, it was a job as a grad student, but they were paying me to do it and giving me a salary and health care, I could have lived anywhere in Nashville, grad students weren’t remotely tied to what you think of as student life…and the thing is, viewed from that angle, the arc of my career path is FAR more impressive if you launch from just a failed four years at a nothing school in Alabama and get all the way through Vanderbilt and DC to Silly Con Valley. I don’t have to tether myself to it as some bulwark of identity. I don’t have to keep forcing myself to fit someplace that is honestly not that great of a fit for the sake of filling a black hole that I can just plank over and walk around.
Vanderbilt was something that I settled on at the exact moment when I was casting about for an English soccer team, and I think in retrospect it was for many of the same reasons. It was something new, unique, novel, a rooting interest I could claim anew somehow. It has been its own variety of cosplay, its own sort of invented secret identity to let me pretend to be something more or different than I actually am. It was something I salvaged out of the old wreckage, slapped a couple coats of paint on it, and used to try to prove I was something else. And we may well be approaching the day when my Vanderbilt identity, as currently constituted, will be a casualty of my lifelong ambition not to have to prove anything…which began at Vanderbilt.