Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Real World, Part I

This is the true 14-part story of one writer's return to his alma mater to teach a fiction workshop, finish his third novel, keep up with the Grub community, maintain his long-distance marriage, and spend quality time with his elderly but vibrant immigrant parents, who live a mere 20 miles from the college. It's *The Real World: Swarthmore* minus the hardbodies and gratuitous sex (though possibly not the binge drinking).

Highlights of the first 5 days:

-- SATURDAY (Day One): Having copied the wrong address for my new apartment, Michael and I (with the help of the Swarthmore Police Dept) spend an hour roaming the dark leafy streets on foot trying to find it. Finally the landlord, History professor Marge Murphy (who initiated and runs the amazing War News Radio) appears in the driveway and ushers us into my new digs: three *enormous* air-conditioned rooms, including a walk-in closet and bathroom with jacuzzi tub. I share a kitchen and common area with two undergraduates, one of whom has already baked me a little cake.

-- SUNDAY (Day Two): Professor Murphy informs me that she has recently installed cable TV, including the MLB package. I resist the urge to throw my arms around her. Michael and I set up my room, then hit the King of Prussia mall, have a drink at a snazzy Manayunk bar and El Vez in the Center City Gayborhood. Back at the apartment, we install and test webcams and sign up for Skype. Fears of loneliness and isolation begin to ebb.

--MONDAY (Day Three): M & I make our first trip to the lush and majestic Swarthmore campus. Classes have started, and we gaze at the students as if at a zoo. ("Look how they check their mailboxes; isn't that cute?") I thought I'd identify more with them than the professors -- that I'd feel the 13 years since I graduated slip away -- but it turns out that the students all look twelve, and I am as fresh and vibrant as Methuselah. We hang out for a while in the English Department, and then make the inevitable trip to the airport. As M and I hug goodbye outside the AirTran terminal, the fears of loneliness and isolation resurge, and it occurs to me that webcams are tragically poor substitutes for human contact. I drive directly from the airport to my parents' house in Wilmington, where I am in charge of bartending and grilling for a 12-guest barbecue. After skimming half a martini per guest for myself, I soon pass out in my old twin bed.

--TUESDAY (Day Four): My dad fell last week, and now suffers from sharp pain in his leg that keeps him from walking comfortably for more than a few minutes at a time. Still he cleans out my car, fills it with gas, and makes me three days of meals -- all before I wake up (at 10:30). My mother is taking three different sets of pills for an illness she won't specify (all she and my dad will say is, "it's nothing serious. It's not cancer, so don't worry") and has to sleep most of the day. Still, she insists I drive her to Costco, where she buys me more food and other staples (i.e. a big jug of Bushmills) and, when I get home, sets me up with a new set of sheets, a comforter, and a coffeemaker. I head back to Swarthmore mid-afternoon and leave them standing in the driveway in their pajamas, waving.

The rest of my time has been spent preparing for my first workshop, which is Wednesday night (tonight!) from 7pm - 10pm, much like a Grub class. We're doing a writing exercise, introductions, and close-close-reading a short-short story. I'm eager to meet my 10 students, any of whom could be sitting among me at the bustling Kohlberg Coffee Bar, where I'm writing this. (Note: there was no coffee bar in this spot in 1994, just a cramped and creaky old building called the Annex, where I can guarantee no one ever lingered over a latte).

This is, of course, the best part of the semester. We're all optimistic. We're going to do our best work, write amazing stuff, attend lectures (even those in different departments!), and jog daily through the Crum Woods. We are our best selves, full of promise(s), eager and (gasp!) confident.

You can tell I haven't started working on my novel yet.

--Christopher Castellani

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