The College Thing

It’s football time again. Time for the new year to start, fresh beginnings. all that. Except it’s not really like that anymore. Partly because autumn doesn’t exist out here, partly because I can’t care about college football anymore, and partly…

Ten years ago, I had a long drawn-out think about college and who I was and what I could claim from my past, largely because my undergrad institution had done a thing that caused me to sever ties with them once and for all. I made the conscious decision that I was going to identify with Vanderbilt to the exclusion of where I’d gone to undergrad or Alabama for that matter (except when playing Tennessee). I bought some extra stuff from the bookstore, changed the wallpaper on all my phones (at the time I think there were four), and settled down to actually be a Vanderbilt fan in a way I hadn’t since leaving Nashville under a cloud.

I had a really bad day in Cambridge last week. Much of it was the 90 degree heat, but a lot of it was also down to the fact that walking around a 700 year old university in England was like one big taunt from God about things that I could have possibly done had I been smarter. Or more aware of my opportunities. Or something. There is another edit where there’s a junior year abroad that sends me to a place like this – maybe in Edinburgh, maybe in Dublin – but it didn’t happen in this world.  Instead, there was the worst choice of my life, leaving me with four years at the worst place for me and then three more trying to make up the difference. I’ve largely decided to punch out of Vanderbilt alumni activities here, because I’m of an age and a situation where I have nothing in common with people who went there as undergrads in the last ten years. My experience of Vanderbilt is not theirs.

And then you have the pincers I live in now. On one side of the bay is an institution that I would gladly have substituted for my undergrad experience and then been spared the need of grad school – the best public school in the world, one of those rare places that doesn’t have its academic excellence hitched to a history of elitism and general assholery. And while everyone has been very kind, I don’t have those experiences there either. I can learn eighteen fight songs (even if I’ve forgotten half of them), I can have the football tickets, but I can never be from there or claim it as my own any more than I could dress up as a Jersey cow and give milk.

Then, on the other side, there stands the sine qua non of that elitism and general assholery, the wellspring of everything wrong and bad and toxic in Silly Con Valley, a place I am catastrophically and painfully bound to and unable to escape from –  I hate it here, I will never be able to claim it as my own even if I wanted to, and I can’t fathom ever wanting to. And yet,coupled with that is the uncomfortable awareness that were I in Nashville and not an alum, I might just feel exactly the same way about Vanderbilt.

So what I’m left with is a void. So much of how we define ourselves comes from our accomplishments or our associations – and that seven-year hole in the past leaves me without the memories I wish I had. It makes me almost think that I need some sort of process with electroshock and MDMA and extreme cognitive behavioral therapy that will implant some kind of replacement memories – or else burn it all the way out of my mind and establish a permanent Somebody Else’s Problem Field around 1990-97 so I can’t think of it or care about it.

Or maybe what I really need is a fictional alma mater. Not like the two (yes, two) I invented during my undergraduate days as a distraction from the ponderous real, but something in common with other people, secure in the knowledge that because it’s fictional, nobody actually could go there, so my claim on it is as solid and respectable and valid as anyone else’s.

Maybe it’s all in on Ravenclaw.

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