I'm sorry guys! The 5402 Review coma is totally my fault. First the uncertainty, then the failure, then the reconstitution of my moving plans have thwarted my ability to write about the topic. But now I am writing!
I recall having a conversation once with Julia once about how I wanted to teach at my high school, but not really at any other suburban public school, although there are thousands of schools in America pretty similar to mine. My rationale was that I knew my particular district really well, having grown up in it and attended its schools, and, since (fortunately) childhood only happens once, I could never know another place as intimately, even if I lived in it for a long time as an adult. Julia thought this was irrational, and when I moved to DC, I realized that I had in fact seriously overestimated how long it takes to get to know a place.
Turns out, you get around a lot more as an adult. Crossing the nearest busy street isn't a huge milestone anymore that requires a 10-year waiting period for authorization, so, if you like exploring, you can see a lot in relatively a short amount of time, like most of tiny DC. Such is also the case, in a more limited way, for places you see when you travel. Spend a weekend exploring a major city, and you will have a basic idea of its layout and organization, some places to eat and drink, some cool things to see and do, just from visiting them by chance.
But what's unsatisfying about vagrancy--both travel and frequent migration--for me is that there isn't much more to it than looking, eating, buying, getting around, and chatting with strangers. There's no purpose--I'm not invested in the place, it's not invested in me. It could sink under the sea the day after I leave, and that would be unfortunate, but it would alter nothing in my life. When I'm abroad, I don't even understand what the people around me are saying, which is horribly isolating. Here in DC, it's been a more pleasant vagrancy--lots of hiking in the hills and buying cute shoes and sipping mojitos on outdoor patios and lattes in overstuffed couches. But, aside from my job, there is no real purpose in my being here over anywhere else, especially knowing from the beginning that I would soon leave. I am living here, but it feels a lot more like a long vacation away from Chicago. So I am curious, Julia, what you would say the purpose or good to be derived from vagrancy is?
The few things that do keep me invested in this place are the very things that prevent me from spending all day in bed eating mayonnaise out of the jar--work, Seb, friends, voluntary obligations to things like tutoring and book groups. If I didn't have these things, vagrancy would be empty and sad, and I would be obese from mayonnaise consumption. But these are all semblances of settled life, so vagrancy itself doesn't offer them; if anything, it discourages them. But the greatest thing about adulthood so far has not been eating chips and salsa for dinner, but having obligations to other people, which means that people trust me and rely on me for things. That has never happened before. I mean, I used to have schedules and places to be and papers to write, but successful completion of those obligations never benefited anyone else. This is new and cool, and I want more of it. But, again, I don't know how it's compatible with vagrancy.
This is why I still think I had a point about the superior kind of knowledge of a place you can have when you've grown up in it, though that knowledge is not necessarily exclusive to children. Children have no choice about where they're brought up--they're completely tied down, so they study the place they're tied to in great detail, detail that I can't summon anymore to know about Arlington or DC. I don't know every house for a mile or every fruit tree and when it's in season or any of my neighbors. What basis would I even have to know my neighbors? They have children and careers, and I am of no use to them. Part of what makes our kind of affluent twentysomething vagrancy seem appealing is that it gives us the choices that Julia describes--where to live, whom to befriend, how to spend leisure time, and so on. But I'm not convinced that I've ever been made particularly happier by the availability of many choices.
Most of the friends I've made have been made by chance or circumstance, not deliberate choice after careful scrutiny--they were my, ahem, college roommates, or next door neighbors, or my second grade classmates. We were friends before I had a chance to evaluate their "fit" for me, and we stayed friends even after they stopped being seven and sharing all my playground interests. One of the nicest discoveries of my post-college life has been that many of my high school classmates are actual people now--nice, responsible, interesting, and mature people. Some of them are even married, and soon they will have babies. I have no idea how this happened--it does seem miraculous in some cases--and we often don't have many interests or hobbies in common, but I see how they could make good neighbors even though I'd never have chosen them voluntarily out of a pool of neighbor candidates nor could I have predicted how they turned out.
So basically, I agree with Becky. I also wanted to leave home for college--to go to New England and be among the self-selected brilliant, cultured elite that I imagined existed everywhere outside Skokie--but I'm sure that had I done so, I would've had exactly the same homesick reaction (in fact, I'm sure I will in six months, so Becky should come to keep me company). I like Skokie even though it's full of many mediocre and even objectionable people, but they are people whom I know well and knew when they were still eating their boogers, and whose lives I care about. Of course, my liking Skokie enough to go back depends in large part on other people's agreeing with my views on vagrancy enough to stay there and be my neighbors.
What you say, Julia, about how it's impossible to confine your friends to your immediate proximity is true, and it complicates my Skokie fantasies. But I still don't see how it's an impetus toward befriending strangers, except temporarily and out of extreme loneliness. When I moved to DC, I refused to make new friends, because I figured that I already had plenty of friends who fulfilled all my friendship needs, so why should I become entangled in yet more vagrant people's lives? They'll leave or I'll leave, and either way, it will have been a wasted effort. Sure, every friend starts out a stranger, but does that mean that we should approach every stranger as a potential friend? Isn't there a point at which we will reach friend capacity?
So I think all these things. However, like Alex, I am not living my life according to them. I had a really good plan to go home in autumn, but our alma mater thwarted it. Now it looks like I'll be spending another year at least with a random roommate (but only one this time, and not from Craigslist) in a random city which I'm sure is very nice, but is not home.
Delayed hearts, Rita
PS: Since I have failed in the particular obligation of keeping this blog alive, someone else can pick the next topic.
What happened? Things were going so well! Was it my extended absence that led to the neglect and eventual death of this epistolary experiment? I think perhaps it was the initial reason, and I feel it is necessary, therefore, to attempt yet another resurrection of this blog. (Before getting on with this resurrection, though, I need to point out that just because you've been accepted to grad school, that does not mean you can just stop bathing and ignore prior blogging commitments. Ahem, you know who you are, ahem.)
Anyway - while the topic of vagrancy evidently did not spark an outpouring of argumentative brilliance from any of us, I am nevertheless going to continue with it, if only to try and exonerate my apparently unwise life choices. I argued, almost five months ago now, that a little vagrancy can be a good thing. Having since then practiced more than a little vagrancy, I have to say that I still agree with myself. In fact, I agree with myself more and more every day, and I plan on being as vagrant as I can for as long as possible.
I understand, Alex and Becky, why you think being untethered and unmoored are bad things. I just think the advantages of practicing a little vagrancy (which I explained as best I could back in January) outweigh the disadvantages. I will never be a born-and-bred local of anywhere, but I'm much happier to have lived in Brussels, and DC, and Chicago, than I am disappointed about my lack of a genuine hometown. I am also quite happy to be able to spend an entire day lying in bed eating mayonnaise out of a jar, without remorse, if that's what I want to do. I understand why these things are not what you would prefer, but I can't say I would pass up on either of them.
While there are places and people that I love and would like to be close to (Brooklyn, my dog, etc.), being tied to any of them just doesn't appeal. Even briefly moving back in with my parents, who are truly excellent and in no way overbearing, is almost more than I can take. Since I am, in most respects, a responsible and loving daughter, I don't think my adverse reaction to this kind of thing is the result of overwhelming immaturity or disaffection. Whatever the cause of my vagrant tendencies, though, I realize I am the odd one out here. Unlike the rest of you, I am not even faintly interested in getting married, or buying a house, or settling on a career. Were I forced to do any of these things right now or never at all, I would happily choose the latter. If to you all this marks me as being deeply weird, and possibly even an affront to human nature generally, I am willing to accept that.
The other objection that you both raised was that, in a life of vagrancy, you often leave behind the people you know only to be surrounded by strangers. In my experience, though, it's not possible to round up all the people you know and keep them in one place. People are hard to pin down that way, regardless of their antipathy toward vagrancy. Also, I have found that I sometimes like strangers, even the ones who aren't, as Alex pointed out, "socially vetted." Despite the fact that I am seriously prone to misanthropy and introversion, strangers sometimes even cease to be strange. For instance, while the three of you were once very strange to me, I am now pretty familiar with your odd behaviors. While not all strangers turn out to be as excellent as you three, I have met others who compare, and I am sure I will meet more in the future. And I find this, frankly, to be comforting.
So, I think perhaps we should agree to disagree about the merits of vagrancy. As for new topic ideas, I think it's time for us to get down to business and debate the merits of Tim Riggins over Matt Saracen. Who's with me?
First off, I took Beatrice to the vet this morning for the first time since we got her third year. You'll all be happy to know she's healthy, but she screamed her head off the entire time we were there. The vet had her wrapped in two towels, and still couldn't do part of the exam. Of course as soon as we got in the car to go home, she was quite and happy and now she's sleeping peacefully right next to me.
Secondly, congratulations to Rita on your fine academic achievements! I am extremely excited that you may now be moving to New England, my homeland. I am equally pleased with how well that fits in with what we're talking about here. When I was deciding where to go to college, moving far away from home was appealing, as it seemed to be to many high school seniors. While I certainly don't regret going to Chicago, pretty soon into my first year, I realized that it didn't really work for me to be so far from my family and everyone I knew. Until recently, I felt like I was a little bit lame for feeling this way. Like, I missed mommy and daddy and had to go back home to be close to them. So many educated young people move far away from home and seem to relish that distance, and I was self-conscious about my desire to be close to my family and hometown. Obviously I got over it, as I'm back in New England, although not in my hometown (yet!).
It makes sense to me to move to a new city or country for a specific purpose, a job, a relationship, a school, given that the new opportunity outweighs the downside of leaving friends, family and home. Given that, Alex, your travels and the various cities you've lived in, make sense to me. Of course there are people who have very specific reasons to leave "home", whether it be dysfunctional family, lack of opportunity, or general dissatisfaction with where home is. Excluding these specifics for the moment though, the part of Julia's post that you quoted doesn't ring true for me personally. Not only do I still feel tied to my parents, but I have zero interest in living with strangers. Maybe this is why I never like those novels about exploring and finding yourself, where vagrancy is made out to be romantic and life-changing. (Although, for the record, I acknowledge Julia's point that "vagrancy" is not really the right word. I'm going to keep using it though, because you all know what I mean.)
Alex, I think your categorization of your situation as "deeply weird" while at the same time being very common, is accurate. On the one hand, it doesn't make sense to leave the places where we are comfortable and the people who know and love us to go somewhere we are not known and that is full of people who don't know us. On the other hand, there are always other places and other people and some of those places and people might always be better than the places and people we have now.
Julia, you said that you are automatically wary of people who have lived in the same place their whole life, and they "must at least be curious about what it's like to live in, I don't know, Philadelphia or Hackensack or wherever." But curiosity about what it's like to live in Hackensack does not seem like a significant enough reason to actually pick up and move there. Also, don't you think there's something great about being a born-and-raised local of somewhere in particular?
P.S. Julia, I very much want to hear about how your vagrancy has been life-changing! When are you coming home?
P.P.S. Alex, have you been watching the current Friday Night Lights? Did you watch the one from a few weeks ago about Smash? I just watched it this afternoon, and bawled my eyes out.
I am co-opting Rita’s place in line, since she is presently too freaked out and unhappy about all the amazing grad schools she’s been accepted to think about her impending vagrancy.
I agree and disagree with you, Julia. It’s hard for me to say that moving around is a bad idea, when a lot of my decisions are geared toward exploring new cities, and I’ve never had too much trouble building new social networks. It never occurred to me to stay close to home for college, I loved study abroad and interning in NY, living in Madrid after college was perfect, and I was willing to move to almost any city that would offer me a job afterward. All in all, I do not consider myself to be too deeply held back by my roots, and my life has been better because of it.
But that’s only because the opportunities offered to me at those times were good opportunities. Chicago is better than any school in Florida, who would turn down a Fulbright, etc. My having to move didn’t make them what they were. If I enjoyed the living in new places aspect of it (which I did) it’s only because it’s a personal interest of mine to see and live in new cities. That doesn’t make it an inherently good thing. If someone is lucky enough to live in a place where there are great schools and jobs and other opportunities, I don’t judge them for not moving. And if someone who feels deeply rooted is unlucky enough to live in a place where there are no opportunities (relative to what they want), I don’t judge them for being unhappy about moving. The only time in my life where I had to move was as a child, from New York to Miami, and I hated it. I can’t say that moving to Miami was a positive life change. It turned out fine, but it would have been equally fine to not have moved.
This passage of yours struck me: “As newly minted adults, we are free to explore! No longer tied to our parents, and not yet tethered by our children, there is no better time to move places and live with strangers.” And while I agree that this is how I am choosing to live my life at the moment, I’m not so sure that it is the best way for everyone. I am occasionally struck by how deeply weird my life is (despite being very similar to many other young adults I associate with.) I live in an apartment that I found online, with a girl I had never met before, who wasn’t even a friend of a friend. No social vetting. I left my family to work at a job that pays about the same as one I could get at home, and now I spend the majority of my day with people I had never met four months ago. I like my co-workers, but every once in a while, I stop and think about how I spend more time with people who are not my family, and whom I didn’t chose as friends, than any other human beings on the planet and...well, I guess I just stop and think that it’s weird. The fact that I have absolutely no obligations, not tied to parents or tethered to children, as you say, also kind of bothers me. I could be lying in bed, eating mayonnaise out of a jar, for the eight hours a day I’m not at work and no one would know because no one depends on me or expects me to be anywhere at a certain time. Strange!
Anyway, kids, this is no way to treat the 5402! Becky, I know you are planning a wedding, and Rita, I know you are huddled in a dark corner with your Nick and Nite, but we need updates! Julia, you are excused since you are somewhere in Asia, practicing your vagrancy.
PS-Now that I have seen all of Friday Night Lights, I need a new show to be obsessed with. Suggestions? I started watching 30 Rock, but it was boring, and Big Love, but it freaked me out.
As you all know, I will be leaving the country in week and a half, to take an extended trip to the other side of the planet. It is quite possible that if you add up all the hours I have spent obsessing about this trip, I will have spent more time planning it than I will actually spend taking it, but I refuse to consider this a waste. It's like having a crush on someone from afar; you may spend more time daydreaming about them (in sosc class...) than you do actually enjoying their company, but ultimately, isn't daydreaming half the fun of having a crush? The reality may also be amazing, but the expectation is certainly worth something too. I'm not quite sure where this point is going, but you're catching my drift, right?
So anyway, our next topic here is vagrancy, and what it means that most of us move every couple years, only to live with random people we met through Craigslist when we get to our next destination. First off, vagrancy is not a word I would use; only someone with a seriously parochial outlook (ahem, Rita) would consider any of our lives to be vagrant. We do not wander idly, we migrate purposefully - for jobs, or education, or relationships, or with the not-unrealistic expectation of attaining these things.
Second of all, for a long time I assumed that relocation was a strictly modern phenomenon; just one by-product of multi-national corporations, specialization of labor and improved modes of communication and transit. (Old people always seemed to like staying in place, too, and that supported my conclusion.) I've changed my mind, though, because it seems to me that, while for most of human history the vast majority of people never ventured farther than the next village, as a species, we like to move around. No one would ever have made it to Australia, or Siberia, if this weren't the case. The history of the United States (colonization, manifest destiny, etc) also proves that point quite nicely. Moving from Chicago to New York or LA to Dubai in the 21st century presents a whole different set of challenges than what, say, Pizarro faced, but the goal is basically the same (better opportunities, Inca gold, etc). Whatever you want to call it - relocation, exploration, migration - moving around has always held a certain appeal.
In fact, I am automatically wary of people who have lived in the same place their entire life. Have they no sense of adventure? Even if you live in the best place on earth (New York, obvi) you must at least be curious about what it's like to live in, I don't know, Philadelphia or Hackensack or wherever. After all, if Adam and Eve hadn't been exiled from the Garden, how would they have known what they were missing? Or what they wanted? Living in paradise must have been boring! If Dante hadn't been exiled from Florence, would he have written The Divine Comedy? And where would we be if Shakespeare had never left Stratford, or Chaucer had never taken a pilgrimage? Machiavelli (who spent a great deal of time traveling, and was himself exiled from Florence) once wrote that the easiest route to heaven was to learn the road to hell in order to avoid it, and I happen to think that makes a lot of sense. How will you know where heaven is, if you never look around? In short: like failure and regret, a little vagrancy can be a good thing.
That said, moving around is hard. I've lived more places than most people, but I've either moved for school or with my family, and even that was hard. Building a social network from scratch takes eons, and can be quite painful, and often the allure of moving to Austin/Sydney/Rome is not enough to entice one to give up the comfort of friends and family. I would, however, be game for moving to Austin/Sydney/Rome if I had a job there, or friends, or really any reason at all. Why would this be a bad idea? As newly minted adults, we are free to explore! No longer tied to our parents, and not yet tethered by our children, there is no better time to move places and live with strangers. We are just beginning to build social networks and create spaces for ourselves in society - new places and strangers are part of this process, and those who move around may end up richer in both friends and experiences in the long run. Case in point: I am coming down to DC on Saturday, to see two of you, and while I'm there we have plans to meet each others friends and mingle. Cross-pollination! Exciting!
Becky spent the end of 2008 and the early days of 2009 in a catatonic state on her couch alternately watching hundreds of clips of General Hospital from the late 90s on youtube and catnapping. Fortunately, she has since snapped out of it and is now able to report to you on the year that was 2008.
It all started out in the craptastic town of Ware, Massachusetts, from which Becky was commuting 40 minutes to work each way. The neighbors screamed at each other in the street in the middle of the night, and it was a 40 minute drive to see a movie, but there were four liquor stores within walking distance of their apartment. Fortunately, Michelle saw fit to quit her job and in June she and Becky moved to "town" aka Northampton. Their apartment there is quite nice and since they brought their new couch in through a second-story window they will probably never be able to leave.
Over the course of the summer, Becky and Michelle were obligated to attend three weddings, and decided that what the hell, they might as well get married too. Dates were set, parents were told, and there was much crying and asking for money. Good thing they don't live in California. Becky ceded creative control to Michelle and continues to this very day to refuse to even think about what she will wear.
Autumn of 2008 brought alarminly loud squealing from Becky's car, continued wishy-washiness on the subject of law school, an outbreak of acne on the cat's chin, and a brief and hateful relationship with the Twilight saga. 2009 promises to be chock full of nuptual planning, continued avoidance of the LSATs, and being maimed daily while washing Beatrice's face.
The 5402 sends its greetings across the internets during these tumultuous times of hope and crisis (followed again by hope!!! and then again by crisis). In the new spirit of thrift that pervades our great nation and humbles even the adolescents among us, whose allowances have been trimmed from $100 to $60 a week, we are sending a joint Christmas letter, and in the spirit of eco-obsession that has inspired some of us to live off only the energy obtained from our own poop, this letter is paper-free. We hope you will understand the necessity of modifying traditions to fit these changing and challenging times.
The year began inauspiciously for Rita when she dropped an Ikea bed-in-construction on her foot. The next day, she discovered that her toe was blue, the nail was black, and it hurt such that she was unable to concentrate and made the biggest copy error of her life, allowing Ward Churchill's name to be printed instead of Ward Connerly's while she went to Urgent Care. After she had waited many hours in the pouring rain for medical attention and conveyed the grave intensity of her pain through groans and tears, she was prescribed the powerful painkiller known as ice, and sent home. The next morning, the pain was amplified by the volume of complaint email in response to the name error.
Several months later, when her toe had recovered somewhat from its trauma, Rita traveled to the wilds of the Iberian peninsula to rendezvous with Alex, who was stationed there as part of a year-long tour of duty to pacify the natives. By the time Rita located her, however, Alex was already beginning to show signs of going native herself--subsisting off Nutella, clothed in scarves and Bershka, and speaking in tongues about how 1 in 15 was the spicy pepper. Rita struggled to free Alex from the continent's chocolatey grasp, but she too soon succumbed to the pastries and barely escaped from the (powdered) jaws of death herself.
After a brief stint climbing the soaring peaks of the Appalachian foothills, Rita returned to Washington to take a seat only inches away from the election action--in the chair in front of her office computer, where, by refreshing nytimes.com 500 times a day, she was virtually in the middle of the fray! It's a good thing this seat was so close to the action because Rita wasn't able to leave it for the next three months. This holiday season, Rita is in the process of stepping down after a long and distinguished career of courageous public service in order to get back in touch with nature, her roots, and the things that matter most in life--like racking up socially impressive credentials and voluntarily seeking a massive pay cut during a recession in exchange for even more work than she does now.
On New Years' Eve 2007, Julia was in a beautiful restaurant, sipping Dom Pérignon and eating foie gras while wearing expensive shoes. That restaurant has since gone out of business, and Julia will be spending New Years' Eve 2008 on her couch, wearing sweatpants and drinking MGD. This change represents Julia's year in a nutshell.
Over the course of 2008, Julia’s answer to the question, "How's it going?" deteriorated steadily, from "good" to "fine" to "meh." In February, she visited Bilbao with Alex, where she became convinced that Richard Serra was trying to communicate with her (It’s only a Matter of Time! All those carbohydrates will kill you!) After this existential experience, she returned to New York, where she read too much Camus and Sartre – quel désespoir, mes amies! – and decided to dress only in black, eat brie, and smoke cloves. Shortly thereafter, Julia simultaneously discovered scrabulous, google reader, fivethirtyeight.com and FAILblog. The jig, as we say, was up! Consumption of PBR skyrocketed. Productivity levels fell to an all-time low. Julia's mother (and probably her boss) were not pleased.
In June, Julia decided to make some changes: she would 1) move into a new apartment, and 2) apply to grad school. She perused Craigslist, and bought a GRE study guide. When looking for apartments and re-learning the properties of triangles turned out to be demoralizing and tedious (much like the men she was meeting at parties) she changed her mind about moving, and grad school (and men). But then she got the hang of right triangles and realized she might be able to live without windows, so she changed her mind back again. She asked her mother what she should to do, and was convinced that she should move, but not to go to grad school. Then she asked her father, and was convinced to go to grad school, but not move. Her friends declined to comment. So Julia reconsidered things, and decided, quite firmly, to remain ambivalent.
At this point, Wall Street, ever attuned to Julia's moods, gave up. So Julia, ever attuned to the economic climate, did too. She felt much better afterwards. So much better, that she decided to quit her job and run off to India. The consequences of this have yet to be determined, but Julia is feeling cautiously pessimistic about the whole thing. Yay for 2009!
Alexandra greeted the start of the holiday season in a similar state of reflection. Last year, early December found her in sunny Seville, perusing ancient cathedrals and town squares lined with palm trees, and buying jam from nuns. This year, early December found her in shared cubicle, eating a frozen lean cuisine and trying to hide the lolcats on her computer screen from her boss. She fears this may not be considered progress, but, in the spirit of the holidays, is withholding judgment for the time being.
For the first six months of 2008, Alex visited at least two new European cities a month, worked 15 hours a week, and used her three day weekends to sample all the wonderful varieties of Rioja wine. She made many wonderful friends and capped off her time abroad with a Greek Isles cruise, on which she ate much baklava and switched to cocktails. Despite her avoidance of all fruits and vegetables, in July, Alex was cast out of paradise. She flew back to Miami, and sat on her sofa for a few months and waited for someone to offer her a job. When this strategy proved to be ineffective, she flew to DC and sat on Murky Coffee’s flea-infested sofa and continued to wait. For some reason, the sofa’s proximity to the job turned out to be the deciding factor.
She found a job at a large non-profit where the cafeteria was immediately abuzz with excited chatter about the new girl. After moving to DC, Alex was surprised that learn that people did not take kindly to her professed indifference to politics. After being shut out of many party* conversations, she begrudgingly learned the names of her state senators.** Now, rumor has it she will be asked to be one of Obama’s advisors! Her popularity with her peers increased as well-she has as many as three friends now, and only sometimes has to remind people to invite her to their parties. Alex remains optimistic about 2009, when all three of her friends are planning to move out of DC and on with their lives.
Becky was MIA from this letter, but not, presumably, from the year. She will report shortly.
The 5402 wishes you and yours the best for this holiday season, and hopes you were not laid off yet, or invested with Bernard Madoff.