Mon 17 Dec 2007
Between sitting in front of a computer screen all day at work, and doing writing and research at home on my laptop, I sometimes feel like my entire life is spent at a desk processing and transmitting digital signals. Most of the work I do either takes place in my head or behind a computer screen. I’ve become a bit isolated, and like leaving the theatre to find it rained during the movie, or reading a book all day and finally looking up to see that it’s gotten dark outside, things in the real, physical world often seem surprising, even miraculous.
There’s been construction going on at Chapman University ever since I was a freshman, and the campus seems to have been almost completely transformed in the last six years. Where the campus was once a hodgepodge of eclectic buildings connected by curving pathways through lush California gardens, it’s now much more deliberately laid out as a series of 21st century buildings cloaked in collegiate brick, with a few of the older buildings looking more and more ripe for demolition. Frankly, it’s impressive.
Seeing the construction unfold has always been interesting to me, and I have to admit that I’ve felt certain pangs of heart-swelling pride watching the progress on the new projects as I come into work each day. Even though some of the changes may be purely cosmetic, it’s hard to see what’s going on and not think “This place is going somewhere.” My office in a building with big neo-classic pillars and no handicap access — and since it’s classified as a “historic place” on some official list somewhere, Chapman is obligated to keep it around. Plus it looks good on postcards.
But things are constantly changing and shifting in that office as well: the staff turnover rate has been staggering. People have cycled through the cubicle area next to mine like musical chairs, and it seems that as soon as I make a new friend, they’re on their way out the door. I’ve been at this job for only two years, longer than 70% of the current staff. As I was going through old files in preparation for my own departure I found a staff chart from 2004 — out of about 40 names, I only recognized three who are still here.
The turnover at my office must be affecting productivity in some way, but the machine is bigger than all of us, and it keeps rolling along. December 6 was the dedication of the new central piazza, which was supposed to be completed in time for fall, but ended up leaving the middle of campus fenced off for most of the semester. Under my desk somewhere there are copies of the architectural designs for the piazza that I’ve had since sometime in the spring, and I had always been excited about seeing the finished product, but began to feel more wary as I saw it slowly come together. In the end, I think it turned out as a success.
To dedicate the Attallah Piazza, the school threw a big party, with speeches from all the major donors, an alumni dance performance, roasted chestnuts, carols sung by a choir and plenty of the snow-and-sweater decor that Southern Californians gleefully wallow in at this time of the year to celebrate the truly chilling, nearly-50 degree temperatures. Few other parts of the country would be dedicating an outdoor fountain in mid-December, let alone giving out free gelato as part of the festivities. But as the song goes, California knows how to party.
In his dedication speech, Chapman’s president said (I’m paraphrasing) “Here in Orange County, people say that we don’t have a center. We’re just a collection of overlapping cities with nothing binding us together besides freeways, which can hardly be called a focal point.” I was surprised to hear him speak so candidly about what is less of a complain and more of a source of existential anguish for the natives here. “But now, with the opening of the Attallah Piazza, Orange County does have a center! And it’s right here at Chapman University!” Bold words. The endless barrage of fireworks which capped the ceremony served to underscore this point.
It was enough to make me consider that he might be right. Not now, but perhaps in ten years, Chapman could become the cultural, intellectual pillar of the county. It’s still got a long way to go. In my short time here I’ve seen lots of groups claim to be the heart of Orange County, only to disband soon after. Because down here everyone wants to be in the band, but no one wants to haul the gear, and even fewer people care to be fans. It’s an upward battle for sure.
But looking around those gathered for the dedication, I recognized quite a few of the county’s noted artists, politicians and philanthropists. I had the thought that if I stuck around, perhaps I could get to hob-nob it with them at events like this in the years to come. If I wanted to, I could probably carve out a pretty place for myself in Orange County’s higher-ed society scene.
But that’s not what I want. I’d be very happy if my alma mater did become the center of Orange County. It could use a center, after all. But just like sitting behind a computer all day can make you forget the physical world, staying in one place can make you think that where you are is, in fact, what the world revolves around. And that’s part of the reason why I feel like I’m being called away from here. A journey to the center of the Earth.