I had anticipated last week’s trip to Pullman, Washington, for some time.
Since November, I’ve been working with teams to prepare design proposals and presentations at Washington State University, one in collaboration with a general contractor for a new visitor center, and the other for pre-design services to remodel the school’s art museum. Last week, my firm was also shortlisted on the WSU wine science center in Richland; I’ve had crimson and gray on the brain non-stop for the last quarter.
Though we’ve discussed prospects at WSU for years, it was a rich experience to actually set foot on campus. Set in the heart of the Palouse, the university is surrounded by rolling wheat fields, tawny in fall and gently undulating with powdered snow in winter. It made me recall my trip to Walla Walla last October: the warm sun, the loamy aroma of rich dirt and crisp breezes, the intimate setting of an agrarian community.
During the four days we spent in this small college town, the topic of school spirit was a natural focus. Steven, a principal at our firm who is close to me in age, also stayed the week. A proud alum, he is known for flying the WSU flag over his desk during football season and is an active member of the alumni board for the school of design and construction. When he speaks of his university experience, it’s clear that WSU significantly shaped his thinking and his career as an architect. I couldn’t help but contrast his student life with my own, which is lacking in that area.
All week, we encountered Cougar pride throughout town: on sweatshirts and hats worn by sleepy students headed to class, on banners hung by virtually every local business, in the names of bars and hotels, and in the dozens of cougar icons —stone, metal, fabric and plastic— modeled after Butch, the mascot. For most retail stores and restaurants, a WSU top over jeans was the standard uniform rather than the brand’s own logo wear.
In general, as an alumnus of the University of Arizona, I observe the rivalry between the University of Washington and WSU with neutrality, though it’s easy to fall in with the Cougs. Their enthusiasm and underdog nature plays on my heartstrings; plus, Cougs are usually more fun at parties.
As I did while exploring Whitman College, I considered how my involvement in student life might have shaped me like it has Steven if I had attended a college like WSU. The dynamic of deep fealty surrounding this small-town university —and the university’s small town— felt intriguing when compared with my own attendance at a 50,000-person university in a city with the population of half a million.
Likewise, UW students are distracted not only by the buzz of Seattle and neighboring institutions like Antioch and Seattle Pacific University, but by monolithic brands like Microsoft, Amazon, Vulcan and Boeing, as well as the Seahawks, Mariners and Sounders. While significant, University of Washington’s presence competes shoulder-to-shoulder with a host of public and private Goliaths for students’ loyalty — before, during and after college.
In Pullman, both the town and the university’s focus is much more pure, if a bit exclusive.
After our first project interview, the team gathered at a small tavern dubbed The Coug for celebratory beers. Four members of our design-build team were alums, three of whom served on the board and returned to Pullman often. They filled in the rest of us on the establishment’s traditions.
Only after bartenders get to know patrons —which happens when they tip well, or at all, over a period of time— do they extend the offer for a personalized beer mug, which is stored at The Coug in perpetuity. One of our team members, an ’84 alum, discovered that they still had his mug; the staff encouraged Dave to call ahead before his next trip so that they could retrieve it from storage for him.
After we tipped generously, inciting the bartenders to rap several times on the brassy, grating cowbell, I ruminated on the concept of loyalty in Pullman, which is intrinsic to life both inside and outside of school. The Coug’s system of reward is actually kind of brilliant: you can’t buy membership by plunking down a credit card, you have to get to know the bartenders and servers and become involved in The Coug’s community. One must personally commit to supporting the cause in order to reap its rewards.
While my friends and I frequented one Tucson dive bar in particular, there is no physical evidence of my time at The Buffet Bar and Crockpot, nor would any of the longtime staff remember me. (Ned the Bartender, I had a secret crush on you!) Though I served as an editorial columnist for The Arizona Daily Wildcat, our university newspaper, I didn’t fit in with the journalism staff who produced it, so I spent little time with them in their beloved dungeon of an office. And, while I held down a campus job and developed a close friendship with Dr. Sigmund Eisner, my Chaucer professor, I’ve let virtually all ties to classmates, teachers and staff lapse over the years, save for my friend Tash in Chicago.
To gain from an experience, be it college, work, marriage or friendship, you have to contribute to it. As I examined a WSU T-shirt for sale, I reasoned that my natural tendency to be a lone wolf rather than one of the pack comes with the consequence of detachment. Rather than hollowly proclaiming to support teams, I often eschew wearing the colors of any organization altogether.
Someone asked during our trip if I belonged to a sorority in college. I rolled my eyes and quipped, “Are you kidding? They would have burned me at the stake.” While this is probably true, the other side of the coin is an issue of intimacy; asking to join a group means a possibility of rejection. If you are unlike the others, a non-conformist, then such a fate is inescapable and in some ways self-made throughout one’s life.
Fellow iconoclasts will insist that they don’t want to be like “the herd,” a notion that feels true for me, too. I don’t want to spout someone else’s thoughts or slogans if I don’t believe in them; I’d rather conjure my own than repeat the mantra of others. If something becomes too popular, I stubbornly avoid being caught up in the trend, circling back later to make my own choice (ahem: Oprah’s book club…) which means that I am often a late adopter of popular culture.
Admittedly, part of my pride is wrapped up in blazing a divergent path.
In the end, I refuse to compromise my beliefs to gain popularity. I’d rather be disliked for being myself rather than loved for emulating someone else. But that’s an easy if not petulant line to draw in the sand, isn’t it? The path of self-knowledge and equanimity begins by holding oneself out for others to experience, whether they mirror acceptance or not. Intimacy between individuals or group relies on trust between members, whether they number two or a thousand, and that involves taking a chance.
The real bonds we form in life come from being naked and honest about who we are—and accepting others into our circle in kind. When that happens, as with Steven and I, it’s possible to lend critique alongside compassion and support. This thing called intimacy allows people to grow stronger within a collective than they would alone. More and more, this is what I seek.
Last night, I found myself reliving my college experience yet again as I wrote the first draft of my application to Breadloaf, a writers’ conference held each summer at Middlebury College in Vermont. I’m applying for a scholarship whose criteria includes, “first-time applicants with nontraditional literary backgrounds, who are working outside of academia or without a writing degree.”
As I described my academic path —a science major from high school to the end of college when I switched my degree to English— I realized that my weak connection with U of A stems from the fact that I didn’t find community there. Even as I changed majors, leaving all my scientist friends behind, I didn’t consider studying creative writing; it sounded hokey, like something that one lists on a resume under “hobbies and interests.” Instead, I pursued English literature, which didn’t fulfill me as I thought it would.
For me, community and self-knowledge have come later in life. Only now, seventeen years after college, have I realized the need to surround myself with other creative writers. Outside of class, it’s a lot more elusive a quest than one might think, even in Seattle. Writers tend to be circumspect about their work, save for the few extroverts who will die if they can’t read their short story/poem/essay aloud to everyone they know.
When I meet with writers in situations similar to my own, we speak a different dialect than the rest, one that feels like home. We’re questers and chroniclers, enjoying the show of life and reflecting on what it means more so than being lead actors on stage.
My experience with the Jack Straw Writers in 2012 opened windows into Seattle’s literary community, as did the Hugo House master class in memoir that I took with Peter Mountford. Last month, I applied for Artist Trust’s EDGE development program for literary artists with a similar hope: to learn the business of writing and meet others in a like moment in their careers. It’s been telling to reread the applications I’ve made recently: NIAUSI, Jack Straw, EDGE and now Breadloaf. Standing back, I see a developing honesty that I’m learning to share with others, hoping to be accepted, but willing to carry on if I’m not.
Steven and I shared thoughts like these during the evening we spent between teams leaving and arriving for interviews. We discussed U of A and WSU, work and family life, architecture and writing over dinner at Black Cypress in downtown Pullman, then crossed the street for a nightcap at Rico’s. Steven has always been one of my favorite co-workers, and I feel fortunate that these pursuits have brought us together more in the last three months. His directness and creativity are truly remarkable; he’s one of those level-headed alpha males that you’d want around if your ship was marooned on a desert island.
On our last night, I realized that WSU has helped to cement our bond. The others went to their rooms after dinner, but Steven wanted to chat in the lobby for a while. Over the course of the week, our free exchange of thoughts, ideas and feelings was a means of community building. We were able to be frank with one another, and support each other during the rest of the trip when occasions arose. In college lingua franca, the trust we developed was pretty cool.
As any university experience should, my week in Pullman has shed light on areas in which I can grow as a student of writing and of the world. I may not have matriculated there, but my time at WSU has granted me pause to evaluate my participation —and lack thereof— in the communities that make up my life today.
Like Steven said during our interview, it’s not just that we’re here in this physical time and place, but at this time in our lives. These years we spend together find us at our most formative, when we’re impressionable and open, sowing seeds of curiosity, experimentation and loyalty into our very nature—a bounty that we’ll share with people near and far for the rest of our lives.
In acknowledgement of this great gift, and my blossoming school spirit, I proclaim with genuine enthusiasm, “Go Cougs!”
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Author’s note: in searching for Dr. Eisner, I was sad to discover that he passed away in December 2012, coincidentally on the same date that my mother died. These lines from his obituary say it all:
Sig loved a good book, a good pipe, a glass of Irish whisky, and above all, a good joke with family and friends. He will be deeply missed by all who enjoyed the privilege of knowing him.