A little town to all outside observers, miles away from anything exciting happening, is where I have been for the last eight years. When I try to answer why this town has grown on me, and now all around me, many vignettes come jumping up all agog to get the prime spot in this story. So let me sort these out making sense out of the chaos of wonderful memories and let them fall as they may, with an appearance of order, but in truth just a serialization of these thoughts with no grand order in mind.
Here is a town that has young people coming out from the woodwork for nine months of the year. Young people with all the craziness of youth, that and all the energy of youth. I will see hair of every conceivable color, dresses that sometime make me believe I am in the 1960’s and sometime that I have been transported to a time far in the future. You may be aware of the breakfast club tradition at Purdue – students get up early in the morning of the football game day and go to the bars in costume. Putting on my stern morality or health nut hat, I will say that such imbibing in huge proportions on a regular basis is not my idea of a great Saturday morning. But the costume part gets my vigorous nod. I have been struck driving out to office on Saturday mornings to see a strong silent student from my class that semester, in a New Orleans mask and garb of Icarus complete with wings. He took the mask off to wave to me, I squinted to see who it was waving at me, and then waved back maybe a little less enthusiastically than him. The inventiveness of the students is impressive. Halloween comes once a year for the rest of the country and it is one thing to be inventive one day a year, but to come up with bizarre costumes with a wry sense of humor for 7 home football game days needs a Purdue student.
When I yearn to hear the rustle of fallen leaves under my feet in Fall, or see frozen icicles hanging down in wondrous shapes from branches of trees in Winter, which happens ever so often, I head to the Celery Bog area. A bog would not conjure up a positive image in my mind, but Celery Bog has changed all that. Close geographically to where I work and where we live, it is miles away in terms of its mental distance. This is an area with long easy trails shaded by trees that cocoon you from both sides and whisper a relaxing tune ever so gently. The trails lead to the edge of the water of the bog and in parts, I do not see a clear definition of where the land ends and the water begins, the continuum of nature reflected in the landscape vividly. There is the Lilly Nature Center (LNC) in this area which has as its crown jewel a viewing area for birds. When after being outside for a while, you want to be pampered by climate-controlled interiors, you walk into the LNC, but can still be right close to the birds sitting in the viewing area. The first time I had been perplexed by how clearly I could hear the birds flying in, catching a bite to eat from one of several bird feeders there, perched on one of several ledges and wooden structures erected there, and then flying out. Then I noticed that there were microphones on the outside and speakers inside conveying the sounds of the birds, and the frequent squirrels chasing them away, clearly to me inside. I have spent many fascinating hours there watching different kinds of birds and the pecking order that exists among them. Large birds would come in and shoo away a gaggle of smaller birds from a ledge and after a few brief moments of peaceful feeding, would be shooed way in by an approaching squirrel. The squirrel would watch the bird fly away and in my mind’s eye, I would imagine it look wistfully at the bird and wonder what it would be like to have the gift of flying.
I have spent many hours at the coffee shop situated across the landmark of Lafayette – the Tippecanoe County Court House. The coffee shop is Java Roaster and it has a second floor which thankfully is inconspicuous and does not draw the crowd from the first floor of the store, where people come in and order. The second floor has oh-so-comfortable sofas with upholstery that makes you want to sink into them. The place has Wi-Fi and I have gone in there with the stern resolve to sit down and work on my computer. But the vantage spot on the second floor overlooking the square with the court house and the myriad people who pass through it has promptly laid waste to my resolve. I have spent many hours profitably looking down at the different shades of humanity walking by, stopping on the sidewalks to talk, gesture, pat another, hug, laugh, cry, and I dare say, with the acuity of my eyes, smile. As my papers have lain unread or unwritten, I have found myself watching in quiet fascination the human drama happening in the unglamorous backdrop of the nondescript sidewalk in front of the shop, even though I catch but one small scene in the drama.
One of my labs on the second floor of my office building overlooks the Engineering mall – and here I use mall for the seldom-used meaning of a grassy patch, not a series of stores selling Purdue merchandise and such unsmiling Engineering gadgets as the slide rule. I spend quite some time in this lab. When the computer monitor in front of me begins to lose its charm because I have been staring into it for almost an hour, I will be drawn to the sight of students playing on the mall. Frisbees fly fast and long and I will switch off my monitor in a nod to my green sensibilities and take the stairs two at a time to get down to the mall. The mall has a curvature to it, like a well-formed human head, sloping down on the sides and peaking at the center. Beyond the grassy patch is the Engineering fountain, which if you have seen any publicity material from Purdue, chances are high you know what I am talking about. Being a faculty member in a large department and teaching large classes, I will often know at least one person in one group playing Frisbee. But even if I do not, I will go in near the area of play and the circle will silently widen out to accommodate me as the new player. Sometime the stereotypical, but true, mid-western warmth makes itself felt without needing to utter a word.
If you are a bibliophile, then the Tippecanoe Public Library is a great place for you. Public libraries in this country are a precious asset and are more often than not, great places to find gems of books. TCPL is no exception. In particular, it has a wide expanse with multiple rooms and reading areas that there is a seat in the house to suit everyone. There is this one room which has an antique feel to it and houses old valuable manuscripts. There is a complete hush in this room – the proscription against any kind of sound is particularly enforced here – and that adds to the flavor of whatever I read there. It is so silent that if you clear your throat, you look around half ashamed that you have broken the code of the room. TCPL has books of the wonderful old-fashioned paper kind and also audio books both in cassette and CD form. These have been invaluable on many a long car trip. If they do not have some material you are looking for, they can hook up with one of several libraries and try and get that material for you. It is not fool proof but has worked more often than not for me.
The Prophetstown State Park is just one exit away on I-65. The undulating green grasslands at the park beckon ever so often, to keep my papers and proposals at bay for an hour and to run to it. This like so many things in Indiana seems to be both understated in its appeal and a hidden jewel. Regarding the first, it does not have a moniker of “first” or “largest” or “tallest” attached to its various landmarks. Rather, its wavy grasslands and the meandering road that threads through them play a team game. All taken together, they invite you not with a red carpet, but a plush green one. Regarding the second, you are almost guaranteed in your trip to Prophetstown not to bump into a gawking tourist as you walk with your head pointed up toward the canopy of a tree. It is close enough that I sometime take my sandwich there for a lunch and when I get back full of the scent of trees and lungs full of fresh air, I am ready to tackle the pressing matters of the world that I am often called on to solve.
A Saturday morning ritual it has been in this town from 1839 and for me for the last 4 years – the Lafayette Farmers Market. It is held in downtown Lafayette. It seems to me small and personal enough that we know several farmers who sell their produce at the market and at the same time large enough that it caters to most of our grocery needs, together with the West Lafayette Farmers Market. I can walk down a block through the Farmers Market and smell fresh flowers; vegetables of many different hues – purple, dark green, light green, white – and for the doubters, yes vegetables have their smell when freshly picked; hand-crafted soaps; and yes, prepared foods too which have often made for a walking breakfast for me. The trick as we wheel our infant in his stroller down the block is to prevent him from grabbing at things and pulling them down to their surefire destruction. Who can live with a spilled jar of freshly gathered honey on their conscience, what would you say shamefacedly to the bees that worked so hard for that much honey.
Purdue adds such a unique flavor to life in West Lafayette and here I am going beyond the rich environment for research and teaching here. Even if you cared not a whit for those, Purdue adds to the richness of life, nourishing you beyond the bread and butter of existence. Name a sport that you are interested in, no matter how esoteric. Go ahead and wrack your brains for that sport that you had read long ago in an obscure international magazine. Now do the same for a cultural activity. With great certainty there is a student club at Purdue for catering to your whimsical taste in sports or cultural activity. There are thought-provoking speakers who circulate through Purdue, some famous, many not-so-famous, who keep you thinking and who take you beyond the headlines of economy, history, or political events. And then there are wild grand Convocations’ shows all through the academic semesters to keep you entertained. Hold on to your student IDs, even long after you have ceased to be a student, because they get you special prices and early admissions to many of these events. Something always seems to be happening. They challenge me to keep my priorities in order so that I get around to solving some of the momentous problems of the world that a faculty in the computer field is always being called upon to solve.
I am not completely blind to the faults of this place, though I am admittedly myopic about them. I can do with an alternate movie theater in town – watching a Tibetan movie streamed through Netflix into the confines of my computer monitor is not even close to the experience of seeing it on a big screen. Plus the community that such a theater gathers around it will be a plus. I like a riverwalk – dear old Wabash is right here, its banks need to be spruced up and with a touch of imagination, it can become the scene for an idyllic riverwalk. Aah … but in the grand scheme of things these are just the minor inconveniences like the broken lead of a pencil that can easily be sharpened.
So, the love affair is going strong after eight years. After eight years, it does not even feel like an affair, but rather a solid arrangement that fits me oh so comfortably. Come back in the future and ask me when the mood strikes you and I will give you the state-of-the-relationship address and the odds are quite heavily stacked on one side.