The correspondence of Apartment 5402 in exile


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.


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