We seemed to easily side-step the awkwardness of not having met before by letting our conversation lead off with topics related to academia: teaching, sharing our basic CVs, and bits of background on our research. Safe, but relevant to getting to know one another, especially since I got a sense from her right away that teaching was for her – as for me – not a job but an actual vocation, in that sense of the word that involves a personal calling that gets integrated into the whole of one's life. She was a strong and engaging conversationalist, and so we threatened to annoy our server by not having our orders ready the first few times he drifted over, so we had to stop and make a point of working out the menu. (I fumbled here for a moment, responding to her asking if I was a vegetarian with a poorly-executed joke that wasn't very funny, which made me wince, myself.) I went with the Beef Kefta bel-tahini, which was interesting if not spectacular, and a glass of Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages, which was fruity enough to contrast nicely with the rest. She went with Kefta and Taouk - a ground lamb and chicken combo. We never really got to talking about the food after we ordered, really, so I don't know what she thought of the dish. She did have me try their Baba Ghanouj, which was tolerable, in the way that eggplant always has been to me: nothing I'd search out. I really don't know Middle Eastern food well at all, despite my diverse and happy meals with Muhammad's family and in restaurants throughout Tunisia, and I'd want to keep exploring over at Shahrazad before pronouncing any strong conclusion about the place, one way or another. Otherwise, the food was only noted for the rate at we went through it: she is every bit as slow an eater as I am, also for the distraction of talking, and just as much noted among her friends for this trait. She was not kidding: I couldn't tell which of us finished last, and so there's no need for apologizing for that one thing....
Once we were done paying necessary attention to the food, we dived back into talking and continued without pause through the rest of the evening. I got some light sense of her growing up, moving a lot, but generally being a New England girl, educated in a noted East Coast liberal arts college, then went off to West Germany (a name I'd not heard in years!) on a Fulbright, then to arguably the best West Coast institution for her Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, with a dive over to an equally-prestigious MFA in Creative Writing along the way. Not that she was putting it in such lofty terms, but I recognized that her academic pedigree was still worth a cheer of congratulations in itself. There was a certain amount of cultural reflection, with her pleasure at the benefits and her horror at the shocks of moving to a not-terribly-large Midwestern town after an East and West Coast upbringing and education, and after living in the L.A. for her first academic job after she had graduated. Taking a place in Milwaukee and living here on the weekends has been a recent move on her part, looking toward having a greater balance of the sorts of things she missed about living in a city with the positive things she is experiencing up north where she is working.
I like her, pure and simple. She's the kind of person that I love having in my circle of friends. Whether anything else can come of it, it's of course too soon to tell, but I look forward to having more chance to find out, either way it goes. She seems to have the same love for the work of teaching that I do, is as passionate and diverse in her research and subject as I am, and just radiates a strength of self that I liked quite a bit, and so just spending time with her on that basis sounds fun, regardless of whether we find ourselves interested in one another beyond that. We never got to most of the stuff she had said that she wanted to ask me about, as the conversation just flowed organically from one point to another, and I didn't get to things I'd thought to ask her.
Refreshingly, she had no fear of Theology (or theologians) as such, or the just sort of blank incomprehension I've also too-often encountered. (I couldn't help but notice that whenever she brought up a theological topic, the conversation seemed to falter uneasily at the next table.) Instead, she had handled that sort of subject on her own academically, particularly in her dissertation (along with having a strong background in the Post-Structuralism overlap of philosophy and literary theory, far moreso than I do). She not only knows where she is going in respect to her own questions about the faith, but she also understands herself critically. She spoke with an ease and equal confidence in such matters that was relaxing: neither with the uncritical piety that isn't for me, or the vague condescension of the not-as-smart-as-they-think-they-are militant Secularist or post-Christian. It was pleasant to meet someone in a significantly different place than I was, but who was so strongly self-aware in it, with quiet confidence and competence. I'm so intrigued by her work: poetry is an art toward which I've always had a skewed relationship, never able to connect with a lot of it in a way I could with other arts, especially in the more linguistically-complex stuff of the 20th century. I've always been conscious of this since my time studying with Lucien Stryk, and so to encounter someone who I know would challenge me to open up to entirely new vistas, if I get to know her well, was just kind of provocative in an unstated way. I'm disappointed that she's going to be a bit harder to pin down for the next weeks with her upcoming conference schedule.