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Thoughts on Ski Bumming 1 February 2011

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Twenty days before I left for Colorado, my father died. The cancer the oncologists had identified in April consumed him faster than anyone, including those same doctors, had imagined it might, leaving him a shell of a 66 year-old man on an October hospital bed. Room 547.

In the weeks leading up to that day, he and I argued about my choice to spend the next several months playing in the mountains, he in favor and I against—against myself. I’d worked too hard up to this point, I said. Ski bumming would throw away an education, my opportunities, any remaining chance that I might enter the Peace Corps. After a summer spent waiting to leave for Togo, only to have my departure postponed indefinitely, I’d chosen this: to ski bum and to kill what had up to that point existed as a resume of polish and pretentiousness.

Dad disagreed.  A sixth month stint in the mountains could not “kill” a future. The Peace Corps required more waiting anyway. Either they would take me afterwards, or they wouldn’t. Or I would no longer care. Our last, worst arguments turned on these contentions, and ignoring my father’s decline, I spent time worrying about my own future. The doctors had given him years. They’d fix the chemo regime, and he’d improve. In six months, we’d see who had better predicted my future.

And then he died, I left, and the Peace Corps helpfully called to say that my “family trauma” would bar travel for at least a year.

So I arrived in the mountains, still trying to figure out exactly why I’d come. I’d ski, certainly, but to what end? The Midwestern child grows up without interest in mountain towns. Creeks and baseball and bikes dominate the playscape.   The basement fills with old copies of Field and Stream, not Powder or SKI. Until I settled into my too-cramped apartment in Keystone, the idea that a ski-bum narrative existed—that people wrote about such things—had never occurred to me. Who was Warren Miller? That was a little over a year ago.

The realization swept in: drugs, booze, and irresponsibility were easy to come by if you wanted them. Women weren’t. The conversation never left the snow. It was the prospect of snow, the current snow, the snow that fell last night and last year and in years past. The snow on your car. The snow tires you’d need. The snow that gusted into drifts behind the boulders on the river, as it swirled, gelid, until finally on a December morning it froze solid and the snow covered that, too. Snow became a determinate of being. There was snow. Or there wasn’t. We lived for that. More than anything else we lived for new snow.

And I thought about my father, and life, and why I’d come to Colorado. About why I was still in Colorado. On a Thursday night, I walked home from The Goat in Keystone with a free t-shirt hanging over my shoulder, holding back tears. Back in October, I’d cried for the first time in I didn’t know how long. It wouldn’t happen again. Life in the mountains was taking its toll. The lack of aim. It was drifting, this time  here. My arguments with my father came back and hung in my breath. Why?

I grew as a skier in the mountains, from the kid who’d skied ten days and didn’t know how to carve, to the kid who dropped cliffs. I bought three pairs of skis in a year. We traveled to Wolf Creek (and I wrote about it), and we traveled to Solitude and Brighton (and I wrote about those, too), and I, on the weekend after my roommate left for an adult job in Washington, D.C., drove alone to Moab because I could think of nothing else to do. It was something and everything. I sat on a cliff overlooking Canyonlands, the La Sals and the Abajos fading into lavender. The cars made their circuits on the road to the overlook. Shutters clicked; the sunset; the sun set. This had nothing to do with skiing and everything to do with why I’d come to Colorado.

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Twenty-Something Journals: Life-Changing Events. Or are they? 6 January 2011

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If you come here often enough, you’ll know that I don’t always talk about skiing and cycling. And that sentence might be enough to turn you away on its own. But on those weeks when I’ve been out of town, the snow is gone or something catches my eye, I wander elsewhere. That’s the purpose of this blog: to wander.

So I wandered home over the week between Christmas and New Year’s, and by the time I returned, three of the people I know well were engaged. Engaged, as in “planning to marry.” Yikes.  As our society moves away from marriage (here and the excellent James Q. Wilson here), the compact has—maybe?—acquired a greater sense of significance. Marriage is no longer the necessary step a relationship, but to do it anyway, well, maybe that says something. Maybe it means more. Considering all that, though, and then considering my friends, I don’t feel much at all—no real sense of surprise, or anything really, that they’ve told three other people that they’ll spend their lives together.

Yes, I’m happy for them, happy that they’ve found that special someone, but they’re still the same people. Two of them are, to my mind, still high schoolers waking up in the morning to go to a student council meeting or heading out to a Friday night party. That they now have a ring on it (rings on them?) hasn’t registered because I can’t tell a difference. Until last year, the bubbles of “engaged people” and “people that are my friends” didn’t intersect. It was one thing to understand engagement in the abstract (something two people much older than we did when they loved each other lots, typically in movies) and another to see it. Other people got engaged. My friends didn’t. Now they were the same.

It’s a significant thing this “to-be-married” stuff, but it only seems strange when given any thought. Kind of like having a dog for the first time or a girlfriend or anything other supposedly defining thing or state. It’s as if we’re all expecting something entirely different to come over us since a life has changed, that a wholly new person should emerge because the context is different. “In a relationship.” Now, “engaged.”

In short, we anticipate that the single E— couldn’t, nor can’t, be anything like the engaged E—. But when we figure out that she’s actually the same, though probably a little happier, the disparity between the reality and our expectations makes us think a moment. E—‘s still essentially the person we knew a month ago, and the context, no matter how much more extraordinary, doesn’t change that. It’s a funny feeling.

Come back five years later, though, and we’ll see a difference. On the scale of a life, it takes no more than a moment to lose a parent, to go off to college, to buy a house, to become a husband or a wife, but the change in ourselves takes so much longer. We react to each as the person we were on the day before. After that, our identities develop over time: we cope, we learn, we nest, we rely on one another, evolving an imperceptibly slow pace. Imperceptible, that is, until we reflect on how we were at another stage. When we’ve incorporated any number of things into our identity, we begin to realize just how different we were with or without them.

Which brings us back to today, the engagements. This is the beginning of a process, both for the engaged and for those of us for whom marriage still seems a long way off. Ten years from now, I suspect it will seem as though E—, K—, and C— have always been married. We’ll ask, with honest curiosity, “what was it like to be single?” When the first child is born, we’ll again wonder, “How is it that this kid who surfed down a flight of stairs on his knees going to take care of human offspring?” He won’t know. We won’t know. But we’ll all learn. And that’s the beauty of it.

Another Return to St. Charles 28 December 2010

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I’ve wandered beyond Colorado for a little bit, so you’re getting a short post, and one unrelated to skiing or a Colorado ski town.

I’ve returned to St. Charles for the holidays,but the ski updates will soon enough, I’m sure.  For now, this marks a time to once again reflect on coming home. Since the end of college, these periods spent away have continued to expand, and the moments at home have become just that, moments. It’s a natural progression, I suppose, for anyone who leaves “homes” and starts a life elsewhere, but it’s one I’m just now exploring, with so many twenty somethings around to explore it with me. Nearly three in four college graduates moves at some point in his life according to the the Pew Research Center. I imagine that move most often comes right after college itself.

In the Midwest, though, nearly half of Americans never leave their hometowns.   And I’m from the Midwest. I return to see family and friends. Those who have moved return for the same reason. Thanksgiving and Christmas have become as much about reunion as about eating and gift-giving. I’m okay with that.

I’m giving you some photos with this post–not great ones–but I’d rather you reflect on why it is you go home. What’s there? Why do you return? And perhaps most importantly: why did you move?

Here’s wishing you a happy and safe holiday season, wherever you’re spending it.

Hiking a 14er 7 September 2010

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Moving to a new state is typically an easy affair, a matter of finding a place to live, signing the appropriate tax documents and figuring out where to buy full-strength beer. Not so for would-be Coloradans. Not only must they uncover the sinister deception that is 3.2% grocery-store beer, but a forming a covenant with the state also entails certain obligations beyond the immediately evident.   The list runs long, so I’ll provide some essential samples: you must make plans to buy a Subaru, you must make conversation the moment you notice a meteorological event involving water (e.g. “Say, it’s awfully humid!” or “Is that… rain?”), and you must climb a fourteener.

The first two don’t take much effort, but the third, well, that already assumes an understanding of the task. Not a sure thing. I mean, what’s a fourteener? Some kind of gun? One of 14 peaks discovered by a roving band of vigilantes? I wish. In reality, though, a fourteener is any of the 53 peaks in Colorado rising higher than 14,000 feet. Some of them only nose into the designation by a couple feet; some slip through as a technicality, another bump connected to a taller lump; but the tallest of them scrape the sky, reaching heights above all but a handful of mountains in the lower 48. No other state but Alaska–and it never counts in these sorts of contests–can lay claim to so much acreage north of the 14,000-foot mark.

So, as you might imagine, 14ers hold a special place in Coloradans’ hearts. Too special a place. Any Monday at a Colorado workplace, I gather, involves a discussion of the climbs attempted and completed. Commiseration follows the failures. We have all been turned back at one point or another. But rarely does the conversation turn to hike without at summit at its beginning, middle or end. What’s the point? No sense of achievement, evidently. Climbing above the vaunted 14,000-foot barrier takes sterner stuff than a pair of legs and a backpack. It takes… willpower?

I don’t know.

My own experience with Missouri Mountain the other day was a pleasant one: several miles of hiking, most of them above treeline, and a view from the summit that peered across a vast portion of the state. And even our failed attempt climb Huron Peak earlier that morning came to a halt in a basin fit for postcard photography. Call it a failure if you will, but that assumes reaching the summit would count as a success.  With all the information out there on how to climb such mountains, success by that definition seems mostly a matter of time and desire. To summit a 14er is to keep walking, scrambling and climbing where some other folks might have stopped. To be sure, a few hikers die each year attempting one mountain or the other, and some peaks involve significant dangers, but you can read your way around most if not all of them.

It can’t be about the challenge, then. So many other climbs exist to test Coloradans’ skills that the man vs. nature dynamic fails to explains the allure of these mountains. Instead, it must come down to a man vs. man test of dedication, a competition of commitment to stand on top of Very Tall Things. The 14er craze has bred a community, a culture even, that insists on calculating and comparing. It has insisted on and garnered a relevance unrelated to hiking in general. Call it “achievement hiking.” I’ll climb my mountains, you climb yours, and we’ll compare notes; our shared interest in 14ers gives us something to talk about.

But if it’s okay with you, I’ll concede this contest. Climb your mountains and stand within arm’s reach of the heavens, and I’ll explore the backcountry, the barely touched wilds the summiting crowds have ignored. I will take the chance moose or beaver over another beaten ridge-line trail, the chance to see no one at all over the certainty of a summit logbook. When every meter of these wilderness trails has been photographed, and when every possible misstep has been cataloged, then maybe I’ll turn my back on what was once wild. For now, though, you’ll find me there in the lonesome, somewhere below 14,000 feet.

Yes, what is it about (liberal, white, upper middle class, college-educated) 20-somethings? 23 August 2010

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The scene opens. The morning light casts contrast across the bedsheets as the camera rolls directly overhead. The shot is overexposed, the palette washed out, and young lovers lie in each others’ arms. They smile and look away and back and talk about themselves and their futures. Her eyes are brown, his are blue. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Their hair lies at appropriately considered angles–he probably wears skinny jeans to bars and skinnier ties to work. She interned with the Forest Service in Oregon one summer but found herself tree-spiking with EarthFirst. They are both in their 20s, and they could star in any culture piece or any indie film whose director thinks he has finally subverted the rom-com.

Last week, they could have appeared in the New York Times piece on 20-somethings—several thousand words on the phenomenon that we’re evidently living, several thousands words that distill to this:

DURING THE PERIOD he calls emerging adulthood, Arnett says that young men and women are more self-focused than at any other time of life, less certain about the future and yet also more optimistic, no matter what their economic background. This is where the “sense of possibilities” comes in, he says; they have not yet tempered their ideal istic visions of what awaits. “The dreary, dead-end jobs, the bitter divorces, the disappointing and disrespectful children . . . none of them imagine that this is what the future holds for them,” he wrote. Ask them if they agree with the statement “I am very sure that someday I will get to where I want to be in life,” and 96 percent of them will say yes. But despite elements that are exciting, even exhilarating, about being this age, there is a downside, too: dread, frustration, uncertainty, a sense of not quite understanding the rules of the game. More than positive or negative feelings, what Arnett heard most often was ambivalence — beginning with his finding that 60 percent of his subjects told him they felt like both grown-ups and not-quite-grown-ups.

A time of possibility, yes, with no thought to the grim future ahead. Or potentially grim future anyway. But to how many people does this actually apply? How many 20-somethings actually live the life described, still tethered to parents, uncertain of the future, shirking responsibility all the way? Our opening couple qualifies by default–it’s the skinny tie and the liberal values (they’re sleeping together after all). But reporters at the Times enjoy creating trend stories where they see themselves, not necessarily a plurality of Americans.

To be a 20-something is certainly to be something, distinct from an adolescent and a mid-career 35 year-old, but reporter Robin Marantz Henig touches on only one broad explanation: a brain that continues to develop. Her star source admits that the “emerging adult” life stage only seems to fit for part of the population. But pay no heed to that, the story sweeps along. To be sure, it captured perfectly the experience so many of us have shared, yet to say the 25 year-old who became a mother in her teens and the engineering grad still living in his childhood home are walking the same path seems, well, wrong. Perhaps a similar optimism exists, but the Times cannot have it both ways: its assignment editors can’t continue to follow the role of culture only to ignore its influence in the case of 20-somethings.

The problem in offering this critique, of course, is that I can only speak anecdotally–the sum of my experiences has demonstrated the variety of lives being led by those born in the 1980s and 90s. The idea that our twenties universally represent a period of open doors cannot square with the reality that so many doors have already closed for those who couldn’t or wouldn’t attend college, who started a family at 19, who could never afford the cost of an unpaid internship on the other side of the county. By choice or by necessity, so many folks have missed out on a supposedly broad cultural phenomenon.

As fun as it is to wag a finger at the article, it’s really too bad that more 20-somethings don’t share the development Henig and Arnett describe. In his own academic articles, Arnett maintains that the idea of emerging adulthood applies only in industrialized nations, and because his experiences as a professor led him to the concept in the first place, I imagine the explanatory power here holds true mostly for college students and grads in recent decades.

We’re beholden to no mass movements, have grown up without the specter of nuclear holocaust, have never known or feared a national draft. We enjoy the luxury of possibility, the knowledge that should we fail in our endeavors, our parents can still pick up the pieces. We can take risks, and travel the world and ski-bum because we can fall  back on our education and our parents’ bank accounts if all hope appears lost–even if our parents have pledged no support whatsoever. No parent with the means to intervene will ignore self-destruction, except perhaps to edify. To follow Henig in her exploration is to acknowledge that so many factors beyond our control brought us to this point, these opportunities.

I’ve enjoyed the ride, but I’m sure not saying that everyone my age was on the same bus.

Deconstructing Over-Consumption 5 August 2010

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As a college-educated twenty-something it is your duty to hate consumerism, corporations and the hard-working American way of life that engineered the $.99 hamburger. It’s a hatred that evidently grows out of a critical blend of sociology courses and casual screenings of Supersize Me and Food Inc. Just as moderately bright high school students discover (and then hopefully ditch) Ayn Rand, wantonly idealistic college grads latch on to the notion that if only Americans could tear apart Western acquisitiveness, they’d find true happiness–empiricism be damned.

The whole of human history says otherwise: money has allowed us to satisfy preferences and to demonstrate status. Not perfectly, of course, and even very very badly at times, but overall it’s performed better than anything else we’ve imagined. The anti-consumerist sentiment on the other hand has found success only in religion where it accompanies a promise of Heaven. It’s nearly impossible to argue against a guarantee of infinite bliss, but undermining idea that going Thoreau forever will ensure worldly satisfaction requires substantially less effort. And it’s more fun.

Anymore, American “over-consumption” has become axiomatic in this sort of conversation, yet because of that, the term rarely receives definition. What constitutes over-consumption? Following the meme far enough seems to indicate that Americans have been over-consuming since about the beginning of the twentieth century—when this country began to speed ahead (imagine ahead in scare quotes if you like) of its peers. Recognize the sliding scale: if Americans consumed at 1940 levels now, it would no longer count as over-consumption. But the world economy is growing. With that in mind, over-consumption appears to mean “to consume more than most everyone else.”

Just defining the term reveals the argument’s core. All this turning American consumerism on its head stuff distills to a desire for a more egalitarian society. It’s about baselines. The average world citizen consumes at, say, C, a level most I imagine most anti-consumption apologists will say is okay. After all, at issue is over-consumption not consumption itself. But American s consume at XC where X is some multiplier. Ignoring the fact that relationship between the two is more technical than that, the point of contention remains: Americans consume more than the average world citizen.

That seems to raise another problem, however, namely that only a small percentage of the world’s population can consume at an American level–the Earth’s resources will stretch only so far. On the surface, that concern appears trickier, but in reality it’s the same Malthusian bunkum as always. When humans deplete the Earth’s resources, well, there’s a whole universe out there. And that will continue until the species destroys itself or runs out of universe to mine. (Downside: as I wrote a while back, we’ll be forced to kill every non essential living thing on the planet first. Sorry, giant pandas.)

The key point, then, is that it doesn’t matter what Americans consume, just how much they consume relative to everyone else. No one would be in a tizzy if everyone on earth lived in a Malibu mansion. In fact, if consumption is simply the satisfaction of preferences through purchases, then it seems even the anti-consumerist crowd would support spending at any level so long as it remained equal.

Money doesn’t buy happiness, though. Okay. If that’s then case, then consider two scenarios with the assumption that watching the sun set over the beach makes a person happy. In scenario A, he has the money to purchase a plane ticket to the beach. In scenario B, he’s broke and stuck in Decatur. Logic dictates that he’s less happy in Decatur. Funny how, if money doesn’t buy happiness, nearly everything folks enjoy doing requires it. And, please, don’t argue that socialization produces all of that. Skiing is fun. Cycling is fun. Watching a movie is fun. Given the choice between any of those things and picking berries for survival, I’ll go for bike ride, thanks.

To get around that point, you might argue that if we simply didn’t know about iPods and motorcycles and what have you, then we we’d never know what were missing. True, but not a case for anti-consumerism. If you can’t even conceive of the alternative to your present situation, you’re not in a position to state a preference either way.

If you liked listening to music on the go in the 80s, you would probably say you were happy. But you didn’t even know that you could be happier with an iPod. Ethically, this gets a bit complex, but if we know that American-style consumption drives innovation, and that innovation leads to products that create new forms of happiness, then we are denying ourselves potential happiness if we stamp out consumer culture.

If you tired of theory, try this:

Here’s global happiness.

Here’s purchasing-power-adjusted per-capita GDP.

I’d written another 350 words on status, but this is all that’s getting published for now. If you were looking for the smackdown finale, come back later and maybe I’ll have have an appropriately witty conclusion.

Independence Day Hipsterism? 8 July 2010

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Ian S. downs his glass of Jack Daniels and steps up to the piano, an 1880s Steinway baby grand. It was the first of its kind to arrive in Colorado, its owner says, and the instrument has since made its way to this house in Denver’s Lower Highlands. Ian clasps his hands, addressing the crowd. “I’m going to start with a Chopin waltz in C minor,” he says. “I know, usually waltzes are boring, but I think you’ll like this one.” His fingers fly. Conversation halts in the audience. Ian is a gifted pianist.

He is wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and cut-off shorts. This is the Fourth of July in Colorado.

The night progresses, and celebrating America opens a window into the life of a certain brand of twenty-something in this county—over-talented, underemployed and not necessarily disappointed in that. It is, to give a nod to another country about to celebrate a birthday (of sorts), a seeming Frenchification of American young adults. For now at least, work has taken a backseat to other pursuits. It isn’t hedonism per se, but maybe another way of channeling energies? I hesitate to bring the term “hipster” to the conversation, but at the same time it seems to fit.

The internet overflows with investigations into hipster culture, but reading through it, the only insight available is that no one is actually a hipster. But then, no one really likes labels. Who wants to be the “kind of person who…”? It’s too simple to paint with that broad brush. Dave Matthews fans beware. Same to fixie-riders. In any event, let’s stick with the label for these Independence Day partiers if only for continuity’s sake. Hipsters. Of a peculiarly Coloradan bent.

To enjoy Colorado, you don’t necessarily need to wear cut-off jeans. You don’t necessarily have to ride a fixie or a cruiser. You don’t have to listen to music so new it hasn’t even been stolen off the internet yet. But it helps. Behind all that affectation, though, lies thousands of dollars in performance outerwear, mountain bikes, skis, climbing gear and helmets for every conceivable pursuit. The Colorado hipster is a geode best cracked on sunny weekends.

The personalities take on a similar structure. Hipster outside, enormous and diverse talent inside. It peaks out every once in a while, as it did in Ian’s performance, but more often it remains hidden under a bushel basket. A soft egalitarianism reigns. Perhaps it’s too cool to show off. Maybe egalitarianism masks feigned effortlessness.

I don’t really know, but as it appears I’m going to further insinuate myself in this culture, I’ll continue to study it. If I become a hipster, I’ll let you know, but in the meantime, I”ll keep on exploring the twenty-something life here.

Try on the photos for now. No fireworks, but it’s America just the same.

City Life 20 June 2010

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Sunday Night: Jazz in the Park

It’s been three weeks since arriving in Denver and already it seems like so much more time has elapsed. I’ve read that change and novelty tend to deepen memories, making tumultuous days, months or years so much longer. Like childhood: every year took forever—and then they speed up, a sprint to the finish line.

For now, though, the change is in the adjustment to city life and new, more challenging employment. Capitol Hill‘s not a sardine-tin neighborhood where folks pay $1300 a month for a closet, of course, but for Denver this constitutes the most “urban” spot around: the highest population densities, the greatest income diversity, the shops and restaurants right around the corner from my apartment, and–this being Denver–a Whole Foods as well.

Anecdotal or actual, the most recent population trend on the tips of demographers’ tongues has been a return to urban living among middle class and affluent whites. White flight had a certain ring to it, but I’ve yet to hear anything remotely quotable about white… return. An urban renaissance perhaps? Generation X and the millenials are coming back to cities regardless of what you call their move, and it takes little effort to surmise that the suburban boom reached its peak just a couple years back, right before reality pricked the housing bubble. Half completed subdivisions sit empty along the Denver fringe. This city’s not alone in that phenomenon.

But why should they return? What is it about city living that’s fueling an urban renaissance? Why should the 19th century mansion next door have remained vacant for years, unable to attract tenants, while developers built house after house in Highlands Ranch and Broomfield? Three years back, convinced that I’d someday become an urban planner, I studied the growth of metropolitan areas, trying to understand the rationale behind what environmentalists and big-city advocates denounced as “sprawl.”

Myriad reasons emerged: the interstate highway system that carved up central cities and shortened commutes; the mortgage interest tax deduction that made home ownership more attractive than renting, albeit at a cost (in lost tax dollars) more than twice that of welfare; low gas prices that bred a “drive everywhere” culture; a failure to internalize all the costs of new development that instead shared the expense of new water mains and new schools with existing residents. Good explanations all, but they painted suburban Americans as the victims of policy choices, herded into the suburbs without a clue as to why. Rarely does the anti-sprawl crowd admit that suburbanites enjoy(ed) large homes at low cost, big yards, and the safety of their securely upper-middle class enclaves.

At the same time, suburbia lost its sense of place. Who could tell the difference between Shimmering Oaks on the Knoll and Windsor Manor at Babbling Brook? For instance, tell where this is without looking at the location stamp. Subdivisions and neighborhoods ceased to hold any meaning in an ever-rising tide of gabled roofs and two-car garages. It was all suburbia. But a city is not all a city. (Same game: guess this location. Or, harder, this one.) Washington Park differs from Capitol Hill not only in its architecture but in its demographics. Back in St. Louis, you’d be hard pressed to describe meaningful distinctions among St. Peters, O’Fallon and Chesterfield. Point being, big city cores develop at different times and under different circumstances, but the suburban boom took place more or less at once, and a highway exit strip looks essentially the same everywhere. So does vinyl siding.

The role models of generation, the characters in our sit-coms and movies, made urban life look more glamorous. The cast of Friends met at the same coffee shop and dropped by each others’ apartments. Sex and the City made New York its sixth character. The baby boomers, on the other hand saw a sanguine picture of suburban life exemplified by the Cleavers, the Flintstones and the Jetsons. The car commute remained much the same from the stone age to the distant future. Only the 60s could support a show called My Mother the Car.

Living here, I anecdotally point to a vitality missing in the suburbs, a feeling my cul-de-sac lacked. Here I interact with folks on the porches of my street. There’s a street culture, a movement, a buzz. And if airy language isn’t enough, there’s the practicality: I can bike to work in 10 minutes, my grocery store is across the street, and I never drive to a bar. If suburbanites worry about safety, they should check their own streets for drunk drivers coming home from a night out.

The other day, in the middle of making a pasta, I realized I’d forgotten to get mushrooms. Leaving the stove on and the door unlocked, I walked over to Whole Foods—a five minute round trip.

City life is good.

A Letter from my Father 20 May 2010

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Surveying Sion

November 2nd, 2005: my father wrote to me just prior to my coming home for Thanksgiving. This morning, I found that letter while cleaning out my bedside table. His words offer a coda to the thought I posted about DC a few days ago.

Andrew,

Both Mother and I look forward to seeing you on the 22nd. It seems as though a hundred years have passed since Mama’s memorial service. I got an email from [your sister] this morning–she and S- are house-hunting, something further north and closer to the G- family insurance agency. She and S- haven’t made concrete plans for T-giving yet, and I have no idea when they will. It’s possible, I suppose, they will be in town, but if I were betting, I’d bet they stay in Chicago.

You made an interesting comment on the phone the other day. You said something about being homesick for people who think as you do–and that got me thinking. Most of the resident folks at Roanoke were from the Northeast and all, or almost all, were more more liberal than I. So I have some idea what you mean when you you use “homesick” in this context. I also found out, though, that the different viewpoint was somewhat helpful. I was (forced) exposed to a different opinion, and that made me examine my own opinion. When that examination occurs, one of three things can result. One, your opinion remains unchanged (and this often happens with the “bedrock” principles). Two, you can abandon your opinion and convert to whatever you have heard. Third, and this is more likely, I think, is where your opinion undergoes some change. Sometimes, the change is rather significant; other times, there isn’t much movement at all. What I found to be most infuriating was not the opinion, though, it was the smugness of the individual: “You’re not from New Jersey, Linc, so I can see why and how you’re so behind in your thinking. ” It wasn’t really arrogance, it was just a sense of superiority, I guess. These people, or many of them, it seems, were so sure their approach was right that they tended to view (and treat) those who disagreed as they would some lesser being.

This certainly was not the case for all, but there were times when those who acted this way seemed to comprise the majority. Hang in there–learning to tolerate the almost insufferable is a mark of maturity and wisdom. But I do think being almost forced to examine your own positions is crucial to development. It may have been Camus, probably someone else, who said the unexamined life is not worth living. He wasn’t advocating suicide, but he was suggesting that a person who does not examine himself and his opinions loses out on self-development and his existence is diminished because of it.

Reading two pages of my handwriting is enough for anyone, so I won’t keep you on the page much longer. Again, we look forward to the 22nd and hope you will find time to spend a little bit of your break at home–but both Mother and I know that there are other attractions awaiting you. See you soon.

Love,

Dad

No doubt, I appreciated the perspective at the time but never stopped to consider the implications. Seven months earlier, my golf coach had stopped me on the practice green. “Peters, now you’re going to one of those East Coast schools, right?” he asked.

“That’s right, coach. Virginia.”

“That’s what I thought. I’m sure you’ll like it there, but I want you to remember where you came from when they start teaching you that we were all monkeys”.

“I understand. No worries about that,” I said, and missed my four-foot putt.

Two years later I sat in my biology professor’s office with a waning belief in creationism, trying the best arguments I’d heard, and that summer, I made up my mind: evolution better explained the progress of life on earth.

The value of college, I think, derives not so much from the courses taught but from its role as a marketplace of ideas. Staying home, staying local, staying “homesick” for those who think alike does indeed stunt our intellectual growth. Our beliefs stand stronger when we have considered and rejected others.

2 a.m. edit: Turns out the quote came from Socrates.

Washington, D.C.–Nexus of Self-Importance 16 May 2010

Posted by magicdufflepud in Uncategorized.
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The metro, filled with important people--and tourists--going important places.

To return to DC is to return to a sense of importance, important people making important things happen always with this overshadowing sense of importance, importance importance. This stuff matters. When I worked here three years ago, I mentioned to my aunt, an inside-the-beltway lifer, the first time I saw Senators Kerry and Feinstein at a rally near the Hill. “Politicians are the rock stars around here,” she said.

And she’s no doubt right, even to the point that you might well extend roadie status to all the bureaucrats who make the show what it is, for better or worse. Only around here do kids write second grade essays about growing up to work as analysts for the FTC or the BLS, not to be firemen or astronauts. Fizzle pop! goes the magic of childhood under the care of status-hungry, beamer-driving, helicopter parents who hover only from 6:30-7:00 a.m. and then again 7 and 9:30 p.m–the time between commuting and sleeping.

That in part explains why I’ve chosen to move elsewhere: this place isn’t the real world. No city in America so desperately needs humility, yet remains so obdurate in its arrogance. By all rights, the city should share with Chicago the same inferiority complex toward New York, but the Wall-Street-be-damned feeling persists, inflated by the self-deceit that political power constitutes real power.

Time and again, I draw the distinction between this place and all the rest I’ve visited or lived over the years. Rarely, except in DC, will someone you’ve just met at a bar or coffee shop ask, “So what do you do?” in the first question or two. Instead, I’ve found the more common question to be a variation on, “So what are you into?” Or, to fit it into the same structure for contrast, “What do you enjoy doing?”

Witty banter follows, in DC always tinged with the response to that first question. “What do you do?” hides the intended imperative, “Validate yourself. Show me you’re important enough to take up my time.” Because, remember, DC is an Important Place where egos seldom fizzle or pop. The status game lives in the system here, in the form of barstool conversations that feel like job interviews, while in Oregon someone gets laid, with both the dogs watching, in the back of a Subaru.

At what point did DC’s citizens lose their wanderlust? When did the striving and ambition and jockeying begin? I imagine it was a gradual thing, like the realization that Mom and Dad weren’t just wrapping Santa’s presents for him. Four weeks after Jacob or Emily  in third grade said it was all a lie, Mom and Dad fessed up too.  And it was about that time that the piano lessons began, alongside the soccer practices and the homework that denied afternoon romps in the yard, neighborhood bike rides. Striving stifled.

Don’t give into it, DC. Leave open the the possibility that the work of defining life neither begins nor ends with a vocation. Instead explore those peripheries.