The correspondence of Apartment 5402 in exile


November 2008
December 2008
January 2009
February 2009
May 2009

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

You can never go home again

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,

PS: Since I have failed in the particular obligation of keeping this blog alive, someone else can pick the next topic.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

can we try again, please?

My errant friends,

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?

Sunshine and snuggles,