A life-altering adjective

It was your typical July afternoon in Kentucky, 2003 edition. My cohort at the Governor’s Scholars program – which at the time was held at three different colleges across the state for rising high school seniors – had met in the lobby of one of the dormitories at Centre College in Danville, and now we were off to the basement. I was barely an hour’s drive from home, but it felt like being in Princeton, New Jersey (where I had spent the previous summer) again, such was the strangeness of being alone with a bunch of other teenagers away from my family. This was a time when the program could prohibit students from bringing “computers” (read: desktop PCs) and have that be an effective way of isolating them from the outside. I had a cellphone that looked like a candy bar.

Anyway, there was an ice-breaking exercise – it was about alliteration (see what I did there?). As a way of telling everyone else our name, we had to pair it with an alliterative adjective (e.g., Sagely Susan, or Miraculous Mary). I seemed to settle out of nowhere on “avant-garde” – questioning it briefly since it was compound-hyphenated, but speaking it all the same through the basement air. I think someone smiled.  This choice of adjective has made an unfathomable difference in my life.

Later the same day or maybe the next (this was 12 years ago), I sat by myself at a table in the dining commons. Another student came over to me and introduced himself with “avant-garde?” It was memorable, I’ll grant – the longest and Frenchiest of all the adjectives. Maybe he was the one who had smiled. Anyway, the word was in this way a double ice-breaker, and we got on to fuller conversation, which for a pair of almost 17 year-olds at a summer camp involved where we intended to go to college.

I hadn’t thought of it much before that meeting. Maybe I would have just gone somewhere in state as the de facto option, had this meeting not happened. I told him I had spent a summer at Princeton, which I wrote off as a place that “didn’t know how to have fun” (how as a 16 year old he knew this I still don’t know). Then he began talking more positively about “Brown,” which I knew at the time mainly as one of the losingest college basketball teams ever as per an ESPN infographic. My interest was piqued.

A few nights after that, I was using that aforementioned cellphone to talk to my parents and I began to talk about some of these colleges this guy had been talking about. Maybe his perspective had been shaped by his experiences as a football player being recruited – he played for Owensboro Catholic – but the academic allure of the Ivy League schools, in a time before the Internet was really as pervasive as it is now, was having its own effect on me. I remember pushing so hard for it despite suggestions about just staying in state.

The fall of 2003 was accordingly a hectic one, with drawn-out application processes and interviews. I mentioned my friend from the dining commons during my Brown interview and the interviewer was surprised we knew each other and seemed to insinuate that the guy was maybe not a good fit for the school. He seemed to think otherwise about me, and I got my acceptance letter about 9 months after that first “avant-garde” utterance, around the time of the 2004 NCAA Final Four.

I sometimes think about what would have happened if I had picked a different word. It would have been a different world.

These sorts of almost accidents – or maybe they’re just actions that come from some place we don’t understand, if the universe really is deterministic after all – have scary power. Something similar, though less consequential, happened to me in 2006 when I was searching for music on a website called emusic. One of my friends from college was into some indie band – I think they were called The Delays – and I searched for them, and due to some mislabeling or weird search error on the site, the only result I got was a progressive trance compilation from the record label Renaissance UK, mixed by the DJ David Seaman.

This 2xCD collection ended up being by far the most influential album on my own tastes. It introduced me to acts like Luke Chable and more importantly Gabriel & Dresden. From there, I discovered more of Chable’s work and eventually found Gabriel & Dresden’s massive “Bloom” mix album, which introduced me to Above & Beyond and the entire Anjunabeats/Anjunadeep universe. “Bloom” was fittingly released on the first ever day of college for me, a day that also featured my first meeting with a professor who went on to become a co-worker and one of my best friends even to this day.

As for Above & Beyond, I have written about them several times here, saw them play Madison Square Garden, and listen to their podcast all the time. My favorite memory, though, is from early 2008 when I came back to my dorm after a weekend at a friend’s place. I think it was in March or April. The sun was just rising and it was foggy and I was looking out onto Bowen Street in Providence, Rhode Island as his car pulled away. In the background I was playing the first disc of some other compilation I had, which kicked off with a remix of the peerless Above & Beyond track “Good For Me.” It felt like I was in a trance (hah) as I reviewed some Latin grammar, too, of all things. Avant-garde studying, indeed.

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