Places that Do Not Change

August 28, 2011

I’m traveling this week, visiting Penn State in my capacity is as a roving academic and professor of food ethics. (Here’s a link to my gig.) Aside from the places where I have actually been a student (Northern Colorado, Georgia Tech, Emory and Stony Brook) on the faculty (Texas A&M, Purdue and Michigan State) or done a stint a visiting scholar (Yale and Wageningen), I think I’ve spent more time on the Penn State campus than any place else.

I could wax eloquently on the food joints that I frequented at those locales: Jose’s Pizza in Greeley, the Varsity and Everybody’s in Atlanta, la Tacqueria in College Station or the Triple XXX in West Lafayette. Many of them are still there, though sadly not the Taq (and I can’t vouch for Jose’s). State College has “The Corner” which boasts that it has been there since 1926. But Diane rightly notes that nobody cares about where we’ve been eating lately, and takes me to task for producing a series of blogs that make too much of some random sandwich I enjoyed in a northwest Alabama strip mall. I want to stress how strongly I’m committed to enjoying every sandwich. But I hope both of my regular readers could see through the verbiage over the last two weeks to see that I was not so vain as to think that you needed to hear about them, too.

No, I was after something else. A brief revisitation of the “matter of time” perhaps, and I’ll wrap that up today.

University administrators have a certain stake in creating the impression that the campus does not change. Many campuses have a quad or (in the case of MSU) a circle with buildings arranged around a big open area. That becomes sacred space. Alumni and former students (in the case of Texas A&M) like to come back and recognize the place. They like the idea that something connects them with the current students, a common experience, a memory of being in a place that endures over the seasons, and over the years.

Penn State had a lot invested in a longish quad-like walk with gigantic elm trees on either side. This was an extremely impressive experience the first time I was here in the 1970s, and endured through several visits in the 1980s. But by the 80s, it was doubtful that the trees themselves would long endure. The threat then was Dutch elm disease, but it has apparently been something called yellow wilt that has finally been doing them in over the last decade. Doesn’t quite look the same, despite the grounds staff’s effort at replanting with different varieties. (And my sympathies to people at Auburn who are losing a couple of oaks from more nefarious causes).

It was Heraclitus who gave us the metaphysical dictum “Everything flows”, translated by some as “All is water.” I personally like a rendering from Donald Fagen and Walter Becker: Everything must go.

Talk about your major pain and suffering
Now our self-esteem is shattered
Show the world our mighty hidey-ho face
As we go sliding down the ladder
It was sweet up at the top
‘Til that ill wind started blowing
Now it’s cozy down below
‘Cause we’re goin’ out of business
Everything must go

It’s tough times in America when U.P. hangouts go belly up and the elm trees are gone, but pluck up. The beauty of that breakfast at The Corner was profoundly dependent on its luminous transience.

We gave it our best shot
But keep in mind we got a lot
The sky the moon good food and the weather
First-run movies — does anybody get lucky twice?
Wouldn’t it be nice…

Places that do not change? Those are places that do not exist.

Paul B. Thompson holds the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University


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