the past is another country

I’ll be boarding a plane in a few hours to San Francisco. My company is sending me to a week-long conference that regularly draws over 20,000 attendees. I’ll be very busy, and it’s tremendously exciting of course, but it does feel a bit strange to be going to a conference and not be presenting anything — usually I’m involved in some form of public speaking or teaching, so I’m feeling a little at loose ends about it all.

I’m feeling a lot of things about it all. Especially the “flying to San Francisco” part of it all.

The last time I flew to San Francisco, I was 23 years old, and my heart was breaking apart.

It was a year since I had graduated from college, and I had spent the last 12 months getting ready to apply to grad school. My preference, if you had asked me, was to find a science writing program somewhere in California, and become the next John McPhee.

As it turns out, nobody did ask me my preference.

Sometime around May of that year, my college sweetheart and I broke up. We had been together for almost three years, which is practically forever in 23-year-old terms, and it was awful and painful and tremendously sad. We kept trying to make it work — I remember one evening of reading love poems to each other on a mountaintop near Northampton as a meteor shower blazed overhead, which really should have worked, right? — but it just ended.

My sweetheart flew out to San Francisco a week later. I mourned by falling immediately into a relationship with somebody I worked with.

Seemed to make sense at the time.

Three months later, I found that I was unable to stop the sound of weeping that seemed to be coming from somewhere inside my chest, which only I seemed to be able to hear. So I sold my car and bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, ready to give it one more try.

I got bumped up to first class and was seated next to Lily Tomlin. We didn’t speak a word to one another the whole flight. They served us mahi mahi, and I felt inexpressably sophisticated.

My old flame was willing to give it a go as well, but we spent a very sad autumn together. Jesus Christ, did that autumn drag on. It didn’t help that it was my first autumn outside of New England, and I had been utterly unprepared for how much I would miss my home state.

Utterly unprepared.

I started listening to Car Talk episodes on NPR in secret, just to hear the accent.

I started cultivating a Boston accent of my own, although my mother and grandmothers were all teachers and had raised us to speak without such a distinctive regional accent.

I despised the palm trees in my front yard.

Sometime around Thanksgiving, the guy I had hooked up with at work — remember? back in Northampton? — showed up on my doorstep. He had driven across the country, with the same purpose in mind that I had had several months earlier — to patch things up. With me.

Now I was in an intolerable position. I needed to get out of there. Nothing good was going to be achieved by my staying.  I started applying to grad schools for early admittance in January, and Syracuse welcomed me with open arms and a full scholarship. It wasn’t science writing, it was a straight up master’s program in geology, which turned out to be not so great a fit for me, but it served its purpose.

It got me on a plane back to the east coast on January 4, 1995, and I have never been so relieved in my life.

I remember sitting on the tarmac, looking out the airplane window at those hateful, hateful palm trees swaying in the unnaturally warm January sunshine, and wondered when I would ever come back again to San Francisco.

Well, here I come.

I do not have any plans to reunite with the other two sides of my tragic little love triangle while I’m out there. I’m there to work, of course, and all that ridiculous business was so incredibly long ago that it seems like it happened to another person, or like I made it all up.

Me? Live in California in a cold, unfurnished attic apartment? Me? A central player in a hilariously badly written soap opera of young adult fiction? I must be remembering that wrong.

When I moved back to the town where I grew up on Cape Cod eight years ago, I felt constantly like I was going to run into myself at 12 years old, or 8, or 15.

And I wouldn’t know what to say.

Now, on my way back to San Francisco, I have that same feeling again. Like I’ll run into me, 23 years old, working in the Sun Valley Mall and living in an attic with just a futon and the old sea chest my Dad gave me. I’ll turn a corner and there I’ll be, broke and homesick and lonely.

If that happens, I think I know what I’ll say this time.

Get out. Go home. It will be better — unbelievably, much, much better — in snowy, cold, gothic old Syracuse.

Make friends. Keep them.

And don’t, for the love of God, ever stop writing.

Image by Michael Lokner

Washington slept here, and so did I.

I’m still in New York City on vacation, although it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday, what with all the museum-ing and theater-going I’m spending all my time doing.  That, and remembering how to use the NYC subways to do something besides get to Yankee Stadium.

We went to the Transit Museum this morning, practically right next to my hotel in Brooklyn.  It was an interesting study in a certain type of museum, one that tells a story with lots of blown-up archival pictures with white text overlaid on the photos, or alongside on the wall.  There were a few attempts to make the exhibits interactive, mostly aimed at teaching kids lessons about the science of combustion engines, and the impact of exhaust on global warming, but for the most part it was pretty static. 

And don’t get me wrong — I loved it.  Especially walking in and out of and sitting down in and holding the leather straps of the different trains from 1914 on up to the present day.   I am nothing if not a sucker for history.  But it made me think about the growing movement to build museum exhibits in ways that engage the audience not just as recipients of information, but as information generators as well, building a conversation that the museum doesn’t necessarily orchestrate and define as much as facilitate and encourage participation in.

 It’s funny how when you start thinking in terms of social networks and user-generated content, you just see the potential applications everywhere you look all of a sudden.  It’s like that time when I bought a Volvo station wagon and suddenly it seemed like the streets were just filthy with Volvo station wagons, and how had I never noticed that before?

A museum dedicated to the New York City mass transit system would be a no-brainer for this kind of approach, it seems to me.  As we walked through the exhibits, my husband and I remarked on different token and train designs, saying this one is the one I remember from visiting my grandfather in Queens when I was growing up or this is the type of train I rode when I visited my first serious boyfriend, who lived in Brooklyn…

This made me think about the presentation I recently saw Jake Barton give at TiTA.  He gave a quick overview of a project his company did called Memory Maps, which involved a large blow-up of the New York City street map, and simply giving viewers small scraps of paper to write brief messages onto, which they could then post on the location where that memory happened.  Really low-tech, and really powerful in how it gives the power of storytelling back to the people.

It struck me then that this was a sort of micro-history telling — the slips of paper were necessarily small, so people had to choose their words well.   And, of course, one is presumably able to be as cryptic as one wants — you can either write my mother died in a car accident at this intersection and I haven’t walked through that block in the twenty years since or simply Mary, rest in peace.

Not sure where that came from.  Being in the city these last few days have suddenly revived the fiction writer in me.  Haven’t heard from her in a long time.

I wonder if you could do something online with a mash-up of twitter and Google maps, with the result a series of maps — on a neighbohood scale, I suppose — with mouse-overs that gave little-ups of micro-stories.  If you wanted, you could write the whole thing out in a longer post that the micro-post could link to. 

This is like a collaborative version of the tour of my hometown I have given countless boyfriends and houseguests over the years — I have a habit of driving people around saying things like and this is where I took ballet until the teacher said I was too heavy for pointe shoes and this is where my brother wrecked my mother’s car the night before my high school graduation and other fascinating tidbits.

And I imagine that everybody has these little guided tours in their heads, even if we never share them with others.  They make up part of our inner monologue, or serve as a faint, thrumming soundtrack to our daily lives. 

How great would it be to share those?  Or at least the edited, the funny, the universal? 

How great would it be to go on vacation, like I am on vacation now in Brooklyn, and be able to open up a map of the neighborhood and hover my mouse over a nearby streetcorner and see what happened there?  Not on a bronze plaque, but on a personal note, told by the person who remembers it best?

Or what if I wanted to enter a search term, and see where the most proposals of marriage happened in this borough?  And where did the most break-ups happen?  And how has that changed over time? 

Because we all have these superimposed layers to the places we’ve lived and the places we’ve been that utterly transform the way we see places, like those transparencies that biology books have to show you first the skeletal system, and then the muscular system, and then the nervous system, and so on, until we are a fully fleshed human being with a protective, but frighteningly permeable outer skin.