This past weekend I spent my first night away from home since November 2019. Friday morning, I pointed the car first north and then west, toward the Land of Lincoln. It took much longer than expected to get there (first an accident and then construction led to more than an hour of sitting still on the interstate), but eventually I strolled back into Champaign-Urbana, home away from home during my mid-20s.
I’d made arrangements for a couple of meet-ups, first with Bruce Reznick, my advisor. Next year will be thirty years since I completed my doctorate, but Bruce is yet to retire (he’s about a decade older than I). Due to some long-planned renovations in Altgeld Hall, the math building, he’s having to move offices this summer, so I met him on campus. We walked around, got carry-out of some fine Asian cuisine for dinner, and sat at a nearby picnic table to eat and talk.
After checking out of the hotel Saturday morning, I met up with my grad school roommate John, who drove down from Chicago with a friend to hang out for a few hours. We did the Urbana Farmers Market, had lunch at an old haunt, revisited various campus sights (though due to COVID restrictions, we couldn’t enter any buildings other than the bookstore), went to a goat farm/creamery just outside of town, and hit up our favorite frozen custard stand (vanilla with banana and cold fudge–pretty tasty).
I remarked both to Bruce and John how much I enjoy being back in Champaign-Urbana. Obviously, so much has changed in the almost thirty years I’ve been gone, but yet, so much hasn’t–the quad on campus, the area around the park where I took my walk Saturday morning, downtown Urbana. What I came to realize in talking with them was that it’s really being back in Champaign-Urbana in the summer that’s especially enjoyable. Sure, it’s usually a little hotter than one might like (it was sunny and around 90° on Saturday), and not as much goes on culturally as during the school year, but honestly there’s much to recommend about a university town when its 33,000 undergraduates aren’t around. My official duties over the summer were lighter then than on average, so it was easier to be spontaneous (within budget, of course).
On the way back to KY on Saturday night, I kept the car radio off and meditated more on how many of my best feelings about and memories of the grad school years are concentrated in the summers. It wasn’t hard to begin assembling some thoughts about each of those six years, as well as some music that still takes me back there.
1987: I took a couple of classes in the first half of the summer. Math grad students were required to demonstrate reading proficiency in two foreign languages (the options were French, German, and Russian). The two French classes I took my senior year of college placed me in the second half of French for Reading, which went well enough. I also took a course in Probability Theory, in part to get me back on track for dropping a course in the spring.
A couple of years ago I wrote about an early July foray to Chicago with John. He reminded me this weekend that on our way back to Urbana from that trip on I-57, we witnessed any number of cities’ firework displays (it was July 4 weekend, after all). Since it was my Summer of Suzy V, he recalled the dubbed cassette containing her first two albums was playing on my ’86 Camry’s tape deck as we watched the parade of pyrotechnics heading south.
1988: In the spring I’d taken the first Russian for Reading course. Since I didn’t have any summer teaching duties and wouldn’t be dealing with prelim exams until January, I took Professor Hill, the Russian instructor, up on an offer: if I could translate two page-long mathematical passages sufficiently well in a timed setting (dictionary allowed), he would certify I didn’t need to take the second course. I spent a few weeks practicing–I picked a few books off the shelf in the math library, photocopied a page or three from each, and then, with trusty Russian-to-English dictionary in hand, powered through them. Imagine my shock when I got the two passages from Comrade Hill (as my officemates and I had semi-affectionately taken to calling him) and discovered that one of them was a page I’d already worked on in my practice sessions! It has to be the most similar thing I’ll ever experience to winning the lottery. The greatest stroke of luck was in choosing the book; I imagine that its spine had some degree of “memory” from having been opened wide previously (by Professor Hill?), making it more likely I’d get the ‘right’ page. I didn’t let on to him about my fortune (nor did I tell anyone in the math program)–I just accepted the passing mark. Preparation meeting opportunity, indeed.
This was a memorably hot summer, the hottest of my years in C-U, but that didn’t stop John and me from getting out to the golf course frequently. It was the year I recorded my personal best 18-hole score (45 on the front, 40 on the back, and yes, I still have the scorecard).
Union, the debut disk from Toni Childs, was one of many albums getting frequent play at that moment.
1989: In many ways, the lost summer of these years, treading water as I prepared to transition to reading papers with Bruce. Two years ago, I covered much of what went down that summer: playing math camp counselor, getting back into bridge, trips east and west. (There was plenty of golf, too.) When I was in the apartment, I was giving Blind Man’s Zoo more than the occasional spin.
1990: I’ve revisited this summer plenty enough, too: witnessing baseball history in Boston before tending to some bridge business, making the first bits on progress on dissertation research. John got married and settled back into Chicago life; in August I moved into a one-bedroom apartment and was hanging out at Sunday afternoon “barbecues” with relatively new friends.
Kirsty MacColl’s Kite was easily the album I was listening to most then.
1991: Thirty years ago this week I was in Vegas for the first time, with Mark L, Milind, and Chris, as we tried again–unsuccessfully–to win the Flight C (non-Life Master) Grand National Teams at the summer North American Bridge Championships. We stayed in a little hotel on the Strip called Westward Ho, just behind the Circus Circus and across from the Riviera. While I had some minor success at low stakes blackjack tables, I was pleased not to be bitten by the gambling bug. Had the biggest airplane ride scare of my life on the return, somewhere in Iowa: the pilot pulled up suddenly and rapidly out of descent when we were pretty close to touchdown, to circle around and try again. Clearly, I lived to tell.
More about that summer next week, but it was another Season of MacColl, as Electric Landlady had been released in late June. This is not the T-Rex/Violent Femmes song; Kirsty wrote it with Johnny Marr, and has something else entirely in mind.
1992: I didn’t defend my dissertation until late June (on my father’s birthday), but defend I did. A LOT of time that summer was spent in the car, back and forth between IL and KY as I began planning to move back for my new job, and to Canada for another bridge trip. I was listening to pop radio while on the road a little more than usual then, and invariably cranked it when Sophie B. came on.
From time to time, I think about the possibility of spending a few weeks in Champaign-Urbana, most likely during a summer break. (Nostalgia, as you know, is clearly a thing in my life.) One of the larger obstacles to doing so would be figuring out the logistics of living arrangements–could I feasibly find a UofI faculty member who’s going to be out of town for an extended period willing to ‘rent’ to a late-period mathematician and his wife? What about our house?
Maybe it’s a dream that won’t come, perhaps shouldn’t come, to fruition. After all, deeper reflection makes me aware that maybe 90% of what made C-U summers so memorable and enjoyable, so treasured now, were my friends.