tempus fugit

over break, i visited virginia for the first time since my parents moved to the west coast

renting a car, i drove from dulles to richmond, to williamsburg, to charlottesville, to lexington, to boyce, then back to dulles. virginia is much larger than you think it is when you see it on a map, and moving from tidewater back to the shenandoah valley, i was struck by the different ecologies as i moved upland along the james river, then over afton to charlottesville

it had been a long time since i had been in lexington, where i first studied mandarin

at first going to the red house to check out the east asian studies department, i saw a house undergoing renovation. fortunately, conversation with someone working at the museum in the ground level of lee chapel provided the necessary directions to the new global studies center, constructed by a glass atrium around and beside dupont hall

in contrast to the homey, focused feel of the red house, the new center seems corporate–much like the kind of academic architecture built in the last few years around here in boston, including berklee. same reproductions of mid-century furniture, glass atrium with cafe, frosted glass doors that can be shut but that provide just enough visibility to ensure that nothing deserving title ix law suits could be going on. in other words, what you see in a newly refurbished airport, but with offices with bookshelves, classrooms with smartboards

something felt lost from our analog tape recorder language lab, wooden farm house of a building. we had a kitchen, ate lots of dumplings, and generally sat around talking about chinese literature in the red house. i’m sure that the students now studying chinese at washington and lee benefit from the new digs. i just wonder if something quirky and for the love of it disappears in surroundings that scream: your destiny is in business! join the state department! but such it is

turning back to a much older building, i did visit my undergraduate advisor, o. kendall white. dr white is a sociologist of the qualitative mold, someone who first got me excited about the sociology of religion, introducing me to work that grounded many of my later pursuits: durkheim, mauss, turner, geertz. nonetheless, ken was much more than a teacher who gave me good books to read; he was someone who stood beside me through my mid and late adolescent struggles about faith, sexuality, and vocation. i’m pretty sure that he knew about many issues that i never discussed with him directly and, good mentor and friend that he was, he never said that he saw through me. rather, he cultivated my interests in religious practice, community, and gender having faith that i would turn out alright.

for many years, i was worried that i never measured up to his esteem, that i went to chicago and didn’t emerge as an academic superstar with my own wikipedia page. it was good to realize that this was my own insecurity, and that he was always in lexington to talk about the twists and turns my road had taken

ken also really loves the work of colin turnbull. i don’t know that i share that love, but he has tried to get me to read turnbull in several not so subtle ways

on this current trip to lexington, ken excused for the state of his office. he was moving out. now that he is professor emeritus and retiring for real, there is not enough room for him in newcomb hall. he has to move. the university could be better at telling people in advance–he mentioned several people who found out a week before they had to be out–but it’s not something you hold against the place that’s given you an office for 40 odd years. so here we were surrounded by boxes and books, boxes of books, xeoroxed pages with notes in the margins, on the back, on the backs of receipts and other at hand at the time pieces of paper stapled onto the pages. the kind of thing you see in professors’ offices but only if you are rummaging through files or doing archaeology of their desk. ken was a bit embarrassed by it

but, as it turns out, he was giving away the books. take them–any of them. oh, but not the books with post its or sticky dots on them: those books are already taken

not leaving these to chance, dr white had picked out two books for me already. one, a set of papers about j. hostetler, an anthropologist of the amish who grew up in the old order. ken knows that hostetler’s work interests me as someone who grew up mennonite. the other, colin turnbull’s more comparative work, which looks at the lifecourse in three different societies. this book, ken tells me, is not only comparative, it is also reflexive. in it, turnbull talks about his own experience as a gay man doing fieldwork and also growing up in the english boarding school system. i don’t really read turnbull, but i notice that this book is full of marginalia and a long series of notes for writing or giving lectures, in ken’s hand. as such, this book is a document of dr white’s engagement with turnbull as a scholar and teacher. for him to give me this book is really to give me something of his own thought and personality, something to guide or inspire as i enter mid career. something tangible that will let me always remember one of my teachers

we decide to go for coffee after visiting a colleague. i’m on day eight with new trifocals, a coming of age of sorts for me, the realization that i am getting old. ken tells me a bit about how not to fall down stairs or trip over curbs, how to look at people without seeming to be checking them out. he takes out a pen to draw a figure that shows how progressive lenses work. it’s only then that i recognize in the shake of dr white’s hands that he has serious parkinson’s

knowing the frequency with which we see each other, i am not sure whether we will have occasion again to converse about turnbull, about foucault, about teaching and writing. my trifocals tell me that as i am now middle aged, he is now an elder. and although i wish that he will be there to give me advice about teaching and growing older, he might be gone soon

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