Wednesday night I got together with some high school friends, and my high school choir director, for dinner at Strawberry Street Cafe, a restaurant in the Fan.

strawberry street cafe, via flickr

These are people I was pretty close to in high school– I spent a huge amount of time doing choir stuff, and several of us were also the core group for the school’s honors and AP courses– but haven’t seen in person for a very long time, and reconnected with on Facebook over the last year or so.

I chose Strawberry Street Cafe because everyone knows where it is, it’s kid-friendly, and because I didn’t really know it. The place was just a couple years old when I started high school, and it advertised regularly on the radio, so I heard about it… but never went there. It remained part of a cool grown-up Richmond that I was too young and poor to visit myself. Reconnecting with my past social reality in a place from a past imagined landscape seemed nicely symmetrical.

strawberry street, via flickr

It was especially lovely to see my music teacher, who was a terrific influence on me, and who went on to run a very successful intensive performing arts school, from which she’s retiring in a few weeks. She was an influence not just because I spent a lot of time in her classes, or because I’ve continued to play (I have my old guitars, but don’t really use them; I expect my daughter is going to take them over sooner or later). Of course I continue to love music, but I peaked as a musician in college (I didn’t want to devote the time to meeting ever-higher performance standards, to say nothing of taking the hit on my grades).

But I learned a lot from her about how to perform, and those bits of craft and instinct have been a great help. It’s not just that workshops and talks are performances, obviously they are; but I think you can fruitfully think of a lot of knowledge work as one kind of performance or another. As the Bard said, all the world’s a stage; so knowing how to play is always going to be useful.

me and my music teacher

It was a nice reminder that some of the organizing tools I use for work and research are ones that I can use in my social life as well. When you spend a lot of your time with books and words, and come from a profession that alternated solitary contemplation and intensive gossip about colleagues, but featured very little genuine planned collaboration, it’s easy to develop a sense of yourself as not that social, and maybe not that good at it. Wrong. As one of my daughter’s friends once told a boy who was teasing her about being introverted, “I’m not an introvert. I’m very extroverted. I just don’t like you very much.”

And even if I do test as an introvert on some psychological scale, I can fake it.

There were eleven of us at the dinner, including two kids, four and five years old. (Most of my class seems to either have 5 year-olds, or 15 year-olds; I’m the only one with a child in the middle.) Two of my cohort married each other, two others had remained in regular contact these last 25+ years, but the rest of us were at best erratically connected. So it wasn’t just me parachuting into an old social circle for an evening; it was a chance for the circle to reconstitute itself. I don’t know why I assumed that people who’d remained in or returned to Richmond after college would have stayed in touch– Richmond is a big place after all, and life does intrude on old connections– but the fact that many of us were reconnecting after years was pleasant. It wasn’t any less something that people were doing for me… but it was also something I was able to do for them.

And Strawberry Street Cafe was a good choice: the food is good, they were very gracious about our ever-expanding party, and they were welcoming of the kids. For me, it was good for another, entirely unexpected, reason.

For whatever reason I had no desire to go back to my old high school, to the apartments we lived in, or other places I saw on a daily basis; both Mom and I opted for the places that we always thought were special, like the VMFA and Maymont Park. (As one of the characters in Dune memorably put it, “People I miss. A place is just a place.” While I admire that gruff practicality and emphasis on loyalty to comrades and family, I don’t actually agree with it at all– places do matter– but some places remain more attractive than others, for whatever mysterious reason.)

the fan, via flickr

Walking through the Fan, I was struck by how well it compares with similar neighborhoods in Philadelphia or Boston or San Francisco, and how it feels like a great urban area for kids and families; I could appreciate the immense amount of energy that’s gone into restoration and renovation of the turn-of-the-century housing stock. As someone intimately familiar with parenting and property ownership, I could appreciate things I couldn’t twenty-five years ago, and imagine myself there.

virginia museum of fine arts, via flickr

Likewise, I always liked VFMA, but it felt like an expression of Richmond polite society, a UFO populated by Izod-wearing aliens. But in the year since, I’ve spent time in the British Museum and MOMA and the Smithsonian and DMA, I’ve given a talk at the Globe Theatre, I have a wallet full of membership cards to Bay Area institutions. I’m no longer alien to these people, I am them.

And I can now appreciate that the nicest parts of Maymont compare favorably with similar places in England and the Continent: it’s not just a lonely Old South wannabe of a great estate, it IS a great estate.

maymont park, via flickr

Staying away from my high school Richmond and planting myself squarely in the places I imagined as defining grown-up Richmond let me start seeing the place differently. Maybe it’s the start of a relationship with the place that has less to do with who I was, than with who I am. Which is good, because in the last year I had the very distinct sense of part of my old self being sloughed off, to make room for something new.

I thought I was visiting to reconnect with some of my past. But maybe I was visiting to create a future.

[To the tune of Carly Simon, “You Belong to Me,” from the album Carly Simon: Clouds in My Coffee 1965-1995 (I give it 3 stars).]