I met the new graduate student in the stairwell, where I was talking with a professor. He raced up the staircase to learn he had just missed her class. I was taken by his ease with her, his obvious familiarity with the course material.
At the end of the next class, the new guy suggested we all retire to the favorite graduate student beer haunt, and a good group of us did. During the course of the evening I asked him where he was from, and he replied, “The center of the universe.” I couldn’t decide whether his reply was charming or annoyingly uninformative.
Over the next few weeks I’d often meet the new guy on the way to the biology building. He’d point out an inconspicuous wildflower and turn its biology into an exciting story of nature. He’d direct my attention to a bumblebee, visiting one flower and then its closest neighbor. Because the wildflower’s gene dispersal was mediated by this pollinator, if most pollinators visited flowers in close proximity to one another, the wildflower’s genetic neighborhood would be small. Small genetic neighborhood could eventually lead to differentiation among dispersed populations of the wildflower, and ultimately, theoretically speaking, speciation.
It turned out the new guy was headed to Virginia over Thanksgiving, close to my own destination, and he offered me a ride. So it was that I arrived at the center of the universe: a town in the Shenandoah Valley with one traffic light, a gas station, a small food market, and few other amenities.
I guess I had grown up thinking I was from the center of the universe: New York City. Of course everyone in the country—perhaps the world—was interested in New York City: we were the advance guard of high culture. With exposure to other places and maturity this attitude wore off, but in ways my family continued to hold me to it for a long time. My mother would talk to me as if I knew of various art events in the city, my father expected me to remember various roadways, and my siblings at times presumed I was still familiar with New York City politics. Of course they still perceived as a New Yorker, and its imprint, of course, remains with me.
Now I live in Texas, and it would be an understatement to say that Texans see their state as the center of the universe. The word that comes to mind is vainglorious. Texas stars and the state outline are constant decorating motifs, school children say a pledge to the republic along with one to the nation, and many Texans have never traveled beyond Texas’ border and have no interest in doing so. There is a postcard I’ve seen that is reminiscent of the famous New Yorker cover showing the coasts with a shrunken wasteland in between; the postcard shows Texas constituting most of the USA and other regions are given names such as “Yankeeland.”
I guess there is nothing wrong with thinking your hometown is the center of the universe; the problem arises when you mistake it for the entire universe and cannot fathom that others hold a totally different perspective.
As to that boy from the center of the universe—the one who could find a universe in the intimate association of an insect and a plant—I married him.