Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Midwest College Town, USA

Some thoughts about my first couple weeks living in Midwest College Town, USA:

  • There are hills here. Not steep ones, but still: hills! This sounds totally insane, but the one thing I was dreading about moving back to the midwest was the total flatness of the place. Something about it just really bummed me out when I lived in Chicago. But it turns out that my understanding of the midwest was paltry, because some parts of it are not as flat as a pancake. 
  • Real winter is kind of great. I always knew that DC was the south (and it is, no question) but living there for so long I forgot what it's like to live in a place where snow isn't considered a natural disaster. You can check back with me about this in April when it's still snowing, but for now I'm enjoying my first actual winter in a long time. 
  • There appears to be no crime here. I am kind of stunned by this. I mean, people leave strollers and shovels and furniture out on their front porch and assume no one will steal it! And no one does! In the parking lot at the grocery store the other day, someone left their car running with a dog inside and just walked away. And as far as I know no one got in the car and drove away with it (and the dog). Josh still insists on triple locking every door, but I'm fairly certain we could just leave the doors open and be totally fine. 
  • There are so many grocery stores here, it almost feels like overkill. Within a ten minute drive of our house we have a Kroger, an enormous Meijer, Whole Foods, Target, and three nice independent grocery stores. I had a great grocery set up in DC, but this kind of choice boggles my mind. I honestly don't understand why a smaller town would have more grocery options than a big city? It seems counterintuitive. 
  • My life as an unemployed person looks very similar to my life as a graduate student. Granted, living in a college town means it's hard not to feel like everyone is at school, but it's undeniable that my default lifestyle is very grad school-ish. Right now, for instance, I have a whole stack of books to read (what else is unemployment for? when else will I have time to read Paradise Lost?) and a nice comfy spot in the graduate student library. I'm carrying my backpack around campus and buying terrible student coffee,'s pretty great. The best part: none of these undergrads are at all interested in asking me questions about their paper on Rousseau. 

Friday, December 14, 2018

no place like home

When I moved to DC in late August of 2009, I was not very excited to be back. (I lived in DC during high school and had never planned to return.) I drove down from New York in a rented truck with my soon-to-be-ex-roommate. She dropped me off at my apartment and helped me unload my paltry amount of stuff, and when she left I walked a couple blocks to the nearest Safeway, where I proceeded to wander through the aisles, crying. I was sad about leaving my roommate (she was moving to London) and my whole family (who were back in New York). But I think I was most sad about leaving New York itself—I loved New York like it was a person I couldn't live without.

I still love New York like it's a person I can't live without. (I tend towards melodrama occasionally.) When people find out I'm originally from there, the most common question they ask me is whether New York is better than DC. This is a dumb question, and the honest answer is no—there is objectively no better or worse, the two places are very different. The question people don't ask me, but should, is whether I personally like New York better than DC. The honest answer to that question is, unfortunately, yes. I admit that it doesn't make much sense: New York is an extremely difficult place to live. Loving New York is like loving an interesting but tragically high-maintenance person—the rewards may outweigh the hassle occassionally, but you need a lot of patience. Most people shouldn't sign up for that life.

Despite my tragic love for the place, I don't regret leaving New York. I like DC a lot, and it's been very good to me for the last 9.5ish years. I've made a lot of good friends, eaten a lot of good meals, and read a lot of good books. I met Josh here (still a mark in the "plus" column, in case you were wondering). I wouldn't trade my years in DC for anything. It would be very easy to stay here forever.

I realized a couple years ago that most people who have lived in a place for this long do decide to stay indefinitely. Friends who moved here when I did either left years ago or bought houses and put down roots. I could never quite picture putting down roots here—I'm sure I could have, but I realize now that I would have had to actually decide to do it. And it never happened. It's like I've been dating DC for 9.5 years and we're breaking up because I could never quite bring myself to propose.

Moving here for grad school turned out to be the right decision. I had no idea if it would turn out okay at the time—hence the crying in Safeway—but in retrospect, it really did. And now I'm leaving DC for a new town, for similarly worthwhile reasons, and I don't know if it will turn out okay this time, either. I may cry in another supermarket at some point, but I've come to realize there are worse things that can happen to a person. 

Friday, November 30, 2018

things I've learned while preparing to move, cont'd

I found the combination lock I used in high school today and, incredibly, I still remember the combination. I found the lock, thought to myself, "oh, this must be the one I used in high school" and then the numbers just popped into my brain. But last week, I forgot how old I was. The brain is a mysterious thing. And I wish I had thought to memorize something more useful when I was 17, because apparently I would still be able to remember it now. 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

things I've learned while preparing to move

  1. Most people don't own 400 books. Or even 200 books. So if you tell a moving company you have about 700 books (I did a rough count), they will use this information to charge you extra. Which might be reasonable, when you consider what 700 books must weigh. 
  2. Almost all the furniture we own was procured either a) for free with imperfections (bookcases that sat in a flooded basement, a table missing a drawer, etc) or b) secondhand. This is to say: it's quite possible that we will end up paying more to move our stuff than it took to purchase all that stuff. This feels somehow undignified. 
  3. When I met Josh, he had basically no furniture and all of his many books and DVDs were piled on the floor of his apartment. And when I moved in with Josh, I brought with me basically just books, a bookcase, some rugs, and my clothes. We are clearly not interested in having stuff (except books), and yet together we have somehow accumulated enough furniture for it to be a hassle. Perhaps this is the definition of adulthood? You are an adult when, even unintentionally, you collect too much stuff to transport by car? 

Friday, October 26, 2018

those who enjoy or suffer one another

“I thought love meant equality,” she said, “and free companionship.”

“Ah, equality!” said the Director. “We must talk of that some other time...Equality is not the deepest thing, you know.”

“I always thought that was just what it was. I thought it was in their souls that people were equal.”

“You were mistaken,” said he gravely. “That is the last place where they are equal. Equality before the law, equality of incomes—that is very well. Equality guards life; it doesn’t make it. It is medicine, not food. You might as well try to warm yourself with a bluebook."

“But surely in marriage . . . ?”

“Worse and worse,” said the Director.

“Courtship knows nothing of it; nor does fruition. What has free companionship to do with that? Those who are enjoying something, or suffering something together, are companions. Those who enjoy or suffer one another, are not. Do you not know how bashful friendship is? Friends—comrades—do not look at each other. Friendship would be ashamed...”

—C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength

Monday, July 9, 2018

the &^#!@(* side of history, cont'd

From a recent essay by Jon Baskin, a portion of which includes an excellent meditation on my least favorite idea:
"The notion that history has a definite direction, and that only some people are on the "right side" of it, has always been attractive to intellectuals on the left; among other things, it offers a clear cause and mission to those of us prone to worry about being decadent or superfluous. On the other hand, it makes history into a bus that will run us all over at some point...and it threatens to render intellectual debate a strictly intramural affair. If politics is a war between the allies and the enemies of history, then arguing in good faith with the losers can only be either a sign of weakness or a waste of time. It's a high-theory variant of the mindset that animated our in-house demographers at the Center [for American Progress], who used to delight in proving, with the aid of laser pointers and the latest in data analytics, that there was no reason to consider the arguments of red-state Bush voters, since they would all be dead soon. This was 2004."
It is delightful have my views on the "right side of history" upheld so perfectly—an extremely rare delight!—so my sincere thanks to Jon Baskin. I would, however, encourage him to go further: I would say that the idea of right side of history is not just attractive to those on the left, but to all humans who wish to feel secure in their ideological worldview, which is to say: pretty much everyone. (Myself included—no one in their right mind writes a whole dissertation about an idea they find uncompelling.)

Baskin is correct to call out the left in particular, however, insofar as the phrase, "the right side of history" has a progressive pedigree. I applaud the right for avoiding the phrase, if only because it irks me mightily, but the idea is still everywhere in right-leaning thought. It's just that, for the right, history is regressive, a story of the slow withering of ideals, moral character, and general uprightness. And for the left, the story of history is the slow flowering of inclusion, enlightenment, and general wellbeing. For both sides, these tendencies are inexorable, born along by trends so all-encompassing that they seep into our mass consciousness and shape our material lives without any effort on our part. The end result is that all you, Dear Reader, need to do to ensure history happens is to jump aboard ship (the correct ship!) and dip the very tip of your oar in the water. You don't need to get sweaty at all, and there's no need to consult the map; just watch your cable news channel of choice, send out a few choice tweets, and bask in the glow of historical righteousness.

I've had people dismiss my argument about this by pointing out that if we were so sure we knew where we were headed, we wouldn't all be so anxious about the other side winning. But the anxiety is not about history, which we're pretty sure of, it's about ourselves. For the left, the right can't possibly succeed in the long-term because their goals are ultimately too small-minded, bigoted, and backwards; for the right, the left can't possibly prevail because their goals are ultimately too depraved and untraditional. Even the victory of the opposing side actually spells their defeat; they might be winning now, we think to ourselves, but it'll end badly and we'll right the ship. What makes us anxious is the everyday impact of these short-term reversals: what if the other side doesn't lose until after my 401K is wiped out? What if the other side wins before I can buy enough guns to form a well-regulated militia? What if the disaster happens before my kids need student loans? What if my life is inconvenienced by those idiots over there who chose the wrong boat?! 

Baskin is quite right that this view has the terrible outcome of making history into a bus that will run us over: we don't want to ask difficult questions, or listen to the idiots in the other boat, because it's all a waste of time—history will straighten them out in the end, so why bother? But what Baskin might be discounting is the great comfort we find in this approach to history, and by extension, in ideology—even if we're about to be squashed like bugs, at least we know where we're headed, and we can plan for the approaching impact. It's a comfort that's utterly wrongheaded and breeds terrible politics, but a comfort that is nearly impossible to discard.

Friday, June 29, 2018

annals of (re)reading

I'm sure you will all be thrilled to learn that one of my book clubs is still going strong. Using the word "club" to describe it may be a misnomer, actually—it's just me and my friend Ashley meeting up occasionally to talk about books. The whole thing nearly petered last year due to a bad book selection; we tried and failed to read Don Quixote and didn't meet for six months because we both stubbornly refused to concede defeatWhen we saw each other for other reasons during that time we would just whine about how much we hated the book and gleefully confess to each other all the other things we'd read.

(And in case you're wondering, the other book club I was in died a quick death for me when someone who went only once (but was still on the email list) insisted that we shouldn't be reading so many books by white men. But that's...another story.)

Ashley and I just finished The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (we didn't love it), and before that we read Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (we loved it). Our chats about the assigned reading are very enjoyable, of course, but I've found that decisions about what to read next are often the best part of being in this book "club," because we both read a lot and that means we just end up talking about books in general. Case in point: we spent a good half hour last time we met talking about Brideshead Revisited, which Ashley had just finished reading and which has long been a favorite of mine.

Talking about the book with her, I realized I needed to at least skim through it again: I had a definite memory of what it was about but I couldn't recall most of the details. So I came home, dug out my copy, and started rereading. A few days later I'd finished the whole book, and I realized two things: 1) it was way, way better than I remembered, and 2) I hadn't understood it at all the first time.

I actually have no memory of when I first read Brideshead, but I do know for sure that my mother recommended it to me and that I didn't read her copy, which means I must have bought it myself, and the earliest I would have done that was my first year in college (15 years ago, bah!). One thing I know for sure is that I must have read it before 2010, because by then I would have certainly realized that the central theme of the book is Catholicism, and I definitely missed that on the first reading. (I'm certain my mother, who spent 12 years in Catholic school, did not miss that in her reading.)

How I could possibly profess to have read and enjoyed this novel without understanding the religious themes is frankly ridiculous to me. Julia of ten years ago may not have been very smart, which I guess is not altogether surprising: she did, after all, start this blog.

The experience of rereading Brideshead was a little like having an encounter between me now and the me of 10 years ago, which is a strange and uncomfortable experience. I've done it before: rereading The Republic in grad school with all my college marginalia was definitely like having a frustrating conversation with a dumber version of myself. But the space of time was shorter in that scenario: just 4 years between readings as opposed to 10, and it felt much less disconcerting to learn that I'd misread The Republic, which I never really felt I understood, than that I'd misread a novel I loved and thought I got the gist of.

While it's encouraging to know that I've learned something in the past 10 years, it's disheartening to realize that I now need to go back and reread my favorite books from pre-2010 to make sure I understood what the heck I was reading. It's going to take a while.