Three years ago this week, I packed my belongings and moved out of the office in the UC Irvine English department that had been my retreat for 21 years. One of the first columns I wrote for this space described my feelings that day. My UCI colleagues decided to frame that column and hang it on the wall of my one-time office "in perpetuity"--a gesture that warmed me deeply. And still does.
I went out to check the other day, and it's still there. The present occupant of the office is a friend who is familiar with the history of that framed talisman. But I couldn't help wondering how an occupant of this space 20 or 30 years down the line might regard this unabashedly sentimental relic of a period with which he or she will feel little connection. I find some solace in knowing that I probably won't be around to find out.
Except for the framed column on the wall, my old office has properly taken on the shape and character of the present occupant. The rug on the floor (the placing of which never occurred to me), the growing things (which I could never sustain), the pictures and mementoes and awards all belong to someone else and exert no nostalgic pull on me. Nor any regrets.
But these reactions impelled me to wander the campus for the first time in three years to see what nostalgia--if any--remained. It was rather like meeting up with an old and intimate friend after a long separation. What changes have taken place? Have they obscured the old attractions? Can bridges be built to these new places?
When I left UCI, so much of my life had been spent there for so long that I envisioned frequent returns to my old haunts. I bought a year's parking sticker and was even allowed to keep the key to my old office so that I might use it when the new occupant was absent.
But happily, none of that took place. Happily, because the break needed to be clean rather than tenuous. Facing up to the hopes and challenges of a new life could only be delayed and adulterated by hanging on to the vestiges of the old. So I didn't visit the campus very often, and when I did, it was for a specific purpose--to speak in a classroom or do research in the library or meet a friend for lunch.
As a result, the campus grew up and away from me. I looked, but I didn't see. Maybe on purpose.
When I left UCI, the omnipresent construction on campus that reduced walking to an obstacle course made it much easier for me not to look back. So many of the places that gave me pleasure were unreachable behind high board fences, put up to protect us from the wrecking balls and construction equipment. The message was clear. This small, rather reclusive campus was about to go big-time--and I really didn't care to stay and watch.
So on this day, I set out to see what came after the wrecking ball. And if any of the places I remembered warmly were still intact.
For starters, the room in which I taught all those years has changed very little. It was called the Writing Center in the beginning and is now the Howard Babb Writing Center, a memorial to perhaps the most delightfully fierce, intense, dedicated human being I've ever known, who died much too early of a heart attack and left an indelible mark on the department he headed.
But once I was outside the comfortable familiarity of the Humanities Building, the terrain became strange and wondrous. The funky student center that once blended inconspicuously with its surroundings is now an enormous, sprawling, glass-and-chrome structure full of lounges and eating places and towers and lattice-work. It was wonderfully uncrowded on this day, when planters were being filled with green things as the final touch in its construction.
Across the way are a new Student Services Building and a Cross Cultural Center, both upgraded from trailers in my day. From the graceful foot bridge that crosses to a burgeoning Town Center, I could get a panoramic view of the almost completed Irvine Theater, built on sloping grassland that once housed the student festivals. And behind the theater, atop a parking lot that used to fill up by 7:30 each morning, is a new four-level parking garage, which also probably fills up at 7:30 every morning.
Passing the main library took me out of Humanities country and made me realize how parochial my UCI life had been. I only visited the other side of the campus under duress. I once taught a class in American film in a room in the Engineering Building so difficult to find that I had to meet my guest speakers--Jack Nicholson, Charlton Heston, James Earl Jones, Frank Capra, among others--at an off-campus filling station and escort them to the classroom.
But here, clearly, is where the major growth is taking place, hardly surprising considering the sources of the money. The new Graduate School of Management looks rather like an oversized and well-windowed barn. Beyond it, in quick succession, are the new bread-and-butter buildings of this high-tech campus.
There's the Rockwell Engineering Center and the McDonnell Douglas Engineering Auditorium and the ICS Engineering Research facility (I wondered idly what company might donate a comparable facility to the English department). Then the massive new Physical Science Building with its research and classroom support complex. And still under construction, a greatly expanded home for the biological sciences.
The new buildings are a wild mix of architectural styles (and would never attract a sequel of "Planet of the Apes" which was made at UCI because of the rather surrealistic consistency of the architecture). I was getting a headache on this side of the campus, so I cut through Aldrich Park and headed for familiar territory. I felt better instantly. I could almost see Chancellor Dan picking up stray wisps of paper. And then, in the center of the park, still untouched, was the tree-shaded alcove where my youngest daughter was married.
In simpler times--15 years ago--we were allowed to use the campus over the July 4th weekend for her wedding and a reception in the adjacent plaza.
I replayed that scene all the way across the park, then wandered through the Humanities Building on the way to my car, looking at familiar nameplates of friends, still in place on office doors.
Somewhere en route, it hit me that I had just passed through a watershed. I was no longer involved in production at UCI; rather, I was a consumer of what the campus has to offer. I found that a comfortable place.
Now, if the new money pouring into UCI will only procure a few large and well-muscled basketball players. . . .