If I were to go back in time and change anything about my undergraduate trajectory, I probably would run for high office of my school's newspaper. For four years, I worked as an Editorial Board Editor and inflammatory columnist (the kind who received copious and likely warranted hate-mail). Our independent paper, free from the staid confines of university tradition since the bold year 1962, held yearly elections at the end of fall session to determine the following year's Managing Board.
I probably would have made a good Editorial Page Editor, and I may even have followed in the footsteps of two of my own favorite editors, both of whom went on to serve as Editor-in-Chief. I was put off, at the time, by the prospect of long hours and by the process itself, which required written recommendations and other generous projects that my 19- and 20-year-old-self wasn't all that into.
I think of this all now in the wake of last night's newspaper dinner, held once a year in February. I haven't attended the Columbia Daily Spectator's Blue Pencil Dinner since I was a lowly sophomore, but it was high time I returned to the geeky fold. Spectator was, in a lot of ways, the community that helped me discover myself. Did I know I could write? Of course. Did I know that so many others could write better? Of course not.
And so, last night's dinner had nothing to do with the limp chicken, pedestrian chocolate mousse, or embarassingly bad California chardonnay and merlot. No, it was an opportunity to meet up with all those people who served time in close quarters to produce a daily, who knew the love and fury of building a newspaper. None of us knew, when we joined, that September 11 would happen on our watch, that some of us would die young, that our plans would change with a changed economy. We had always resisted that desire to look too far into the future.
My most brilliant editor was in attendance last night. She's one of these rare people who has a handle on anything and everything relevant. In one breath, she explained her PhD thesis (which she described as a riff on a David Foster Wallace essay) and two minutes later she was incredulously describing that some of her freshman students hadn't been born when Guns 'N Roses' Appetite for Destruction hit record stores. What more inspiration could I have asked for as a writer than this perfect marriage of low and high cultures?
Sometimes I think that's what food writing is all about, a configuration of high and low that most of us struggle to get our minds around. Many of my friends from the Spectator are writers now, trying to come of age in a medium that society keeps telling us has fading relevance in a modern world. I admire their virtue; they ask me for wine advice. We're all just trying to make peace with a changing world.
Anyway, I don't have too many regrets. If I had been on the Managing Board, my own story probably wouldn't have ended that differently. I don't write for a living, it's true, but I also have always known the place of the pen in my own life, even if ball points don't pay the bills.