Saturday, March 6, 2010

The symbolic chairs of Cornell and Costa Rica

(A Costa Rican rocker on the left and a Cornell chair on the right.  Which one holds the better memories?)

I returned home from Costa Rica this time with a rocking chair in a box.  If you have ever visited that incredible country, you have seen them in all the tourist shops for about $200.  It is a wooden chair frame of guapinol (Hymenaea courbaril), with seat and back made of leather tooled with Costa Rican scenes.  I always thought it was a handsome chair, and functional, but dreaded getting one back to the states.  But this time I bit the bullet and brought it home as checked luggage.  I love those chairs, and I look forward to using it in my home.

On the other hand, there is the wooden chair I could have gotten for free when I retired from Cornell University a couple of years ago.  This is the customary "going-away" gift for retired profs.  Some companies give their retirees a watch; Cornell gives you a chair.  Both gifts seem, well, stupid to me.  Does a retired 65-year old need a timepiece to know when to get up in the morning, when to eat dinner, or when the next meeting will begin?  And the Cornell chair seems to say, "go home, sit down, and read a magazine".  I just don't like either image.  So I refused the Cornell chair and asked for a small flat-panel tv instead, to which my department chair agreed after consultation with the administrative HQ in the "colonel's" office.  (The command and control structure of most universities is directly analogous to that of the chain-of-command found in the U.S. military, which I had the pleasure of enduring for three years.)

So I thought about my refusal of the free Cornell chair and the purchase of the Costa Rican chair quite a bit over the past two weeks.  Why is one repulsive to me and the other appealing to me?  There is nothing physically unattractive about the beautifully polished and spindled Cornell chair; something else is at work here.  As is so often the case, I think it is all about memories.

I spent nearly 30 years at Cornell, but the bond never really took.  This is exceptionally weird for me, because I normally develop a deep attachment with every organism and every habitat and most places with which I have ever spent significant time.  The Cornell campus is beautiful, but the place is an institution, and it is like most institutions.  It is somewhat unyielding, and dogmatic, and all business; it just happens that education is the commodity being marketed.  It is about results, and budgets, and beating out the competition.  Its weapons are public relations, a corporation-oriented Board of Trustees, and lobbying at the state and federal level. It is shiny on the outside, but stiff on the inside--just like its chair.  No matter how long you sit in its chair, its shape never changes, and it becomes uncomfortable.  In time, the shine wears off.  Whenever I was away for months at a time doing research or on a sabbatic leave, I never missed the place at all, not once.  Old faculty at a university die at their desks, alone.

On the other hand, Costa Rica is the only place other than my own home for which I feel true homesickness when I am not there.  I love the people, the food, the music, the climate, the biological diversity, and the spirit that is Costa Rican.  The country is beautiful, and friendly, and mysterious.  It is stable, and practical, and inventive--just like its chair.  The leather becomes soft and pliable with time, and it molds to the shape of your body.  Old Costa Ricans die while dancing with friends and family. 

The stark memories of my place of employment transferred to their parting gift, so I refused it.  The fond memories of the other place transferred to the functional product made there, so I bought one.  And so it goes throughout life.  Associations and memories influence decisions and conclusions about the experiences we have had, and tend to guide us through whatever is next.