Disclosure • This blog entry deals with a lot of people and a lot of places. Although nothing I could divulge has any reasonable expectation of privacy, I am still hesitant to include too much identifying information about parties who may not wish to be associated with this blog or its content. I am largely eschewing the use of any names beyond mine and Allison’s, including any relevant fraternities or sororities.
The Rising Action
I spent the past weekend in Macomb, Illinois, a little bucolic ‘burb in the middle of a vast stretch of corn and grass. In any other circumstance, this sleepy little town of about 20’000 people would be entirely unexceptional—it is quintessentially Midwestern, by which I mean that it is quintessentially dull. Officially founded in 1830, it didn’t gain its famous feature—Western Illinois University—until 1899. It enjoyed a brief relationship with the St. Louis Rams, who used WIU’s athletic facilities for summer training from 1996-2004.
I made the 3-hour drive west to see my girlfriend, Allison, who began her undergraduate studies there this fall, as you may recall if you read this rag regularly. We’d planned it for close to a month—I knew that visiting was a categorical imperative for me, but it was just difficult enough to remain an occasional thing. Sadly, no surprise visits or unexpected trips.
I arrived on Friday afternoon. The trip was long and lonely, the sky overcast but the air humid enough to require me to keep my air conditioning on. At 80mph, opening the windows is a practical impossibility. My back and ass hurt from sitting for so long, my bladder was slightly distended from the large coffee and the bottle of water that I imbibed along the way, but by the time I was navigating Macomb, I no longer really cared. In part, this was because I was busy navigating (I missed my turn anyway and had to circle around to a secondary parking option), but it was also because I was so excited about finally seeing my girlfriend—I had not seen her, after all, since Labor Day weekend, admittedly not an eternity, but close enough when one is madly in love. After navigating across a street and between some buildings, I saw her just as she exited her orchestra rehearsal, and my heart leaped as she came skipping toward me. Neither pictures nor memory do her justice—I was thrilled. My journey was over.
Once we got back to her dormitory, I had to meet all of her friends. Allison makes a lot of friends, and being on an all-girl floor (more on that later) means that she’s surrounded constantly by mostly friendly girls of similar age. I’ve seen this before—when Allison was in colorguard, for instance, or the dance team—and it always ends in bubbly friendship. Sure enough, Allison had a whole cadre of extroverts, with whom we ate dinner in the cafeteria. Nice, certainly, but a bit overwhelming to a quiet, understated, and severely car-lagged person such as myself. I immediately set out to memorizing all their names (most of which seemed to begin with a |k| sound), with some success. It being Friday, most of them were going out drinking.
WIU and Drinking
Drinking is big at Western. Really big. Naturally, there are well-known party schools that probably eclipse it, but I personally have never experienced an on-campus culture as heavily predicated upon alcohol as I did during my 2.5 days in Macomb. Western is home to 28 sororities and fraternities. I am unaware how intrinsic the Greek system is to the drinking culture on campus, but I can say that the most drinking we saw was on Adams St., home to a number of frat houses, overflowing with herds of beer-gulping partygoers.
My immediate theory is that Macomb offers little other recreation besides intoxication. The location is remote from any urban center (the nearest shopping mall is ≈30 miles away), and while Western it has the standard college amenities, the usual sort of commercialization that follows the college demographic—coffee houses, hookah bars, bookstores, specialty restaurants—just isn’t there1. Macomb is lucky to have a Wal-Mart and some fast-food franchises. So, despite the Macomb police’s harsh stance on underage drinking, it’s stubbornly prevalent, to the degree that you are statistically likely to be doing only one of two things on a weekend night: sitting in your dorm room, or drinking somewhere. According to a 2000 College Alcohol Study by the Harvard School of Public Health entitled “Binge Drinking On America’s College Campuses,” Greek system membership and collegiate athletics participation are the two important correlating factors for the likelihood of binge drinking, but anecdotally I can assure you that it’s by no means limited to these criteria alone.
Saturday morning, Allison and I attended a charity softball tournament, sponsored by her sorority, which was held for charity. It began at 10 a.m., which struck me as odd, since I figured most of the participants would be miserably hung over at that point. And to no great surprise, I heard a number of the female spectators mumble things like “I drank so much last night,” and the otherwise-fit male participants stumbling and groaning like overtaxed fat men, bemoaning their sorry state. True to form, however, one winning team, when faced with three empty hours until their next match, began to loudly suggest they all head to a local bar for some celebratory beers.
Allison and I didn’t tarry too long at the event—we were tired from staying up late the night before, as Allison wanted to finish the last few episodes of the second season of Grey’s Anatomy before we watched the inaugural episode of season 3 that I had brought with me on my pen drive. Also, were hungry, having basically missed breakfast. Our first night of sleep was a little turbulent, too: Allison lofts her bed, which is a twin-sized unit, and this leaves maybe two vertical feet from mattress to ceiling. So there we were, having both squeezed into that little cave of a space, and we fell asleep almost immediately, only to wake up from the incredible heat that I had managed to generate underneath the covers. Also, the bed had a bit of a droop in the middle, and so we both rolled toward each other, fighting for space. I know, I know—how romantic. By Sunday night, though, we had managed to find our groove, sleeping more comfortably and more soundly in each other’s embrace.
I’ve never lived in a dorm before—the closest I’ve come was bunking in a dorm at Case Western for three days (see blogged bits: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), or maybe staying at a hotel. Allison’s dorm is an X when viewed aerially, and each L (half of the X) on each level is reserved for a specific sex. Each half of a floor is isolated from the other—for a male to go from his side of Floor 10 to the other, for instance, he has to travel down to the first or second floor, walk around, and take a different set of elevators up to the female side of Floor 10, and he must be accompanied by a female from that point on. As a male guest residing in a female area, I had to be accompanied by Allison for every trip to the bathroom (I wash my hands just often enough to be irritating), and when I showered, she stood guard to make sure that no other girls came in looking to bathe—I was, after all, about an entire head taller than the shower stall (the showerhead rose to a point level with my chest). Had someone been starkers in a neighboring stall, I couldn’t have seen her goods without a purposeful effort on my part (which I am smart enough not to do), but it still would have been a bad scene. None of the girls seemed to particularly care about a guy on their floor, which made things considerably easier.
I lived mostly out of a suitcase, a selection of clothes that were mostly too warm, as I underestimated the warmth of the weekend (rain was forecast—we received almost none). I am a creature of habit and familiarity, so living in a foreign environment, with travel-sized and microwaveable versions of my stuff and my diet, respectively, was unsettling. Or at least it would be—in Ohio, I was uncomfortable for much of the time, bunking with coworkers—but being with Allison was comforting. I didn’t feel out of place or at odds with my environment: to the contrary, I felt more comfortable with Allison than ever before.
Saturday: He drinks a whisky drink, he drinks a vodka drink, he drinks a lager drink, he drinks a cider drink
Saturday afternoon, after returning from the charity event, Allison and I availed ourselves of the local Pizza Hut, and absolutely smashed a large pepperoni pizza and order of breadsticks. Maybe I was just hungry, but we both agreed that it was especially satisfying at that point. After we had digested, we went out to the library, which is one of WIU’s points of pride. It’s a massive structure (six stories and 200’000ft2), a mixture of a college library and a botanical gardens, overflowing with decorative plant life and topped by a triangular glass ceiling. It was deathly quiet that afternoon, and we hiked up to the top floor, found two chairs, and read, but the early rising and the smothering silence eventually got to us. I found my eyes crossing in fatigue as I tried to read. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to the dorm for a nap. By this point, the rest of Allison’s floor (with some notable, sober exceptions) was just beginning to stir, nursing headaches. It was still quiet enough for a nap, and we woke sometime shortly after five, somewhat refreshed but groggy all over again.
The major event of the night was a fall concert held by the various musical groups of WIU’s Fine Arts program, namely the Chorus, the Jazz Band, the Orchestra, and the Wind Ensemble, the latter two of which Allison is principal bassoonist. After getting ready, Allison, myself, and two of Allison’s friends piled into her car and headed out in a bit of a hurry. In the end, I had to drive Allison’s car a block or so to a parking lot while she rushed to get her instrument and high-tail it to the performance hall.
The concert, while nice, was nothing to gush about. That is to say, each ensemble performed a short, illustrative set that introduced itself without really showing off what each was capable of (it is early in the semester, after all). The orchestra played the final movement of Dvorák’s 9th Symphony, which was excellent, and the highlight of the wind ensemble’s performance was Frank Ticheli’s Blue Shades, a jazz/swing-inspired piece that featured an outlandish clarinet solo, which was performed with such pizazz that the male clarinetist was treated to a feminine chorus of cheers as he stood up after the conclusion of the piece. Allison had a few short exposed parts (she has more solos in the full Dvorák symphony, which they will naturally be playing next weekend when I am not there), and needless to say she was wonderful, as she always is.
The post-concert festivities, unrelated to the Fine Arts program, was a Fall Party for Allison’s sorority. Allison was invited, but not even sure how to get to the venue until perhaps 10:30pm, when she was finally able to get ahold of someone who knew. The “venue” was really just the backyard of a farmhouse in rural Macomb, and by the time we got there, it had been a “wet” event for a couple of hours, which is to say that everyone was drinking by that point. You might think that a couple of hours isn’t even long enough for a proper drunk, but even before 11, some of the same people who were hung over like death at the charity event that morning were already so stupendously inebriated that they were having trouble standing. Some seemed to be taking it more easy with the drinking. One very nice girl who came up to talk to Allison and I admitted immediately that she was basically shitfaced, but managed to talk to us for a good ten or fifteen minutes, coherently, about the sorority and about her career plans. My FLAC hoodie sparked a discussion about computer science majors and the Java programming language. So, I can at least say that this group, while very drunk, was at least comprised of friendly drunks, who were also prescient enough to sleep on-site, in tents set up for that very purpose.
Unimpressed with the choice of recreational activity (e.g. drinking, and then peeing on the corn), Allison and I left after a short stay there and headed back to the dorm, where we cuddled, finished watching Laws of Attraction2, and went to bed around 1:30pm, aware that we had the luxury of sleeping in the next morning.
Sunday doesn’t lend itself well to narrative. Allison and I arose at about 11am, cleaned up around the dorm, and hung out until 4pm, when she had to go practice for a talent show that her sorority is participating in. I sat on the sidelines and read my book, sometimes smirking at the hangover-related groans being offered up by the participating fraternity members. I never cease to be amazed that the behavior of the previous evening fails to change, regardless of the events of the subsequent day. It’s a pervasive and pernicious sort of culture.
After the practice, Allison and I stopped at K-Mart for some supplies, got dinner at a Wendy’s, and ate quickly before she needed to leave for her sorority’s new member ceremony (an actual ceremony, though, and not a hazing). I stayed at the dorm, confined to the room, and read my book, snacking all the while. I spent most of the time wrapped up in the enormous blanket that Allison had made me (I’d offer pictures if my camera wasn’t shit), and she finally got back around nine, along with most of the girls who had left for the weekend.
We did some laundry, and I painted her nails while she studied for a test. Neither of us really wanted to go to bed, since the morning would be a harbinger of my inevitable departure. I had decided to stay the extra night, rather than leave Sunday afternoon, in order to squeeze all of the time possible out of my visit, but it still didn’t seem like enough time. I didn’t want to leave; Allison didn’t want me to either, but come Monday morning, I needed to leave by 8:30 in order to make it to my afternoon classes. Tears were shed—Allison and I felt extremely close to each other this weekend, and leaving felt like losing her to college all over again. The ride home was smooth and uneventful, but I was in a dour mood, eschewing music for the first 40 or so miles, unable to get into it.
In a little over a month, she and I will celebrate four years together. It continues to amaze me how she and I seem to be a living breathing thing capable of autonomous growth. It never feels to me as though we weaken, despite any fights or ruts, and my love for her is continuously renewed by some means or other. I had a great weekend with Allison. I love her, with all my heart.
- By contrast, Illinois State University’s home city of Normal, while hardly a sprawling metropolis, has a small downtown within walking distance which offers a variety of little restaurants—including a goddamn fantastic Irish pub called Maggie Miley’s and a coffee house that also serves excellent vegan food—several record stores, a little cinema in which I saw Spinal Tap earlier this year, a cozy little used book store, and probably some other stuff I can’t think of right now[↩]
- Who wouldn’t marry Pierce Brosnan?[↩]