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Denver: First Impressions 31 May 2010

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I’ve been living out of a suite in the Warwick Hotel for the past few days. It was an unintentional thing–friends in town on their way to Seattle, a one-night stay that grew into several, and a balcony view of the Central Presbyterian Church. We’re still here now, listening to the street noises six stories below. So this is what it’s like to live in the city?

Denver’s the only major metropolitan center in 500 miles–the distance between here and Salt Lake City–so it collects and concentrates all the city types in that enormous catchment area. A huge percentage can’t call Colorado their state of birth. By contrast, you can hit every major east coast city from Boston to DC in and still keep the trip under the 500-mile mark–not bad if you enjoy car trips to visit friends and family, but quite the opposite when you start looking to leave civilization behind for a few days. The Poconos and the Shenandoahs don’t count.

So anyway, Denver lies at the base of the Rockies, this bastion of culture against the country music and bible talk radio of the surrounding plains and cowboy hills. And against Colorado Springs, too, I hear. Lots of military men and mega churches down there and little in the way of liberality. That dichotomy, however, has lent the state its libertarian leanings: hard on government, soft on drugs, and conflicted about the environment. Whether the influx of transplants will rebalance these politics or push them further, I’m not sure, but for the time being the red/blue sparring will continue to make this state a stop on every presidential hopeful’s tour.

You can bet Denver proper will remain blue as a bunting until the end of time, though. It’s that concentration thing again. No adjacent state offers a thriving, diverse city of its size, so despite a population just a fraction of Chicago’s or New York’s, Denver manages to support all the urban crowds you’d expect: hipsters, punks, professionals, those groups of weird, baggy-jean wearing 17 year-olds. Our hotel backs up to the gay district, it seems. I imagine these folks have left Wyoming and Utah and Oklahoma for the promise of urban life surrounded by those who remind them of themselves. Strange that that observation should follow the last post’s concerns about diversity of thought, but there it is. Denver’s the big city in these parts, but the the variety of lifestyles and backgrounds concentrated in its urban core make it feel larger than even that.

Of course, Colorado’s capital still lacks the diversity of its seaboard peers–if New York and Philly will allow the comparison–and to mention cosmopolitan with respect to Denver’s demographics is to misunderstand the meaning of the word. Without looking at the census data, you’d never know that Hispanics comprise nearly a third of the population given the sea of white folks who crowd the streets. No, this is not a place to hear a new foreign tongue on every street corner.

Even my grocery store in Summit County with its complement West African immigrants seemed more exotic. How they all arrived there, I’m not sure, but my hazy memories of sophomore year Human Geography return to “chain migration.” You can look it up, because I don’t plan to.

At any rate, Denver offers many, though not all, of the qualities and opportunities I’d been seeking: an outdoorsy lifestyle, a vital downtown and a smart, growing population. Most of the women I’ve seen in the park have been attractive, too. This helps.

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

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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.

Coming “Home” 9 May 2010

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It snowed a week an a half straight in the run-up to my departure from Summit County. All that after two and a half weeks of sunny skies and greening grass. I’d even tried finding a disc to get some ultimate games together before winter returned in a way that no one in the mountains had really desired but that everyone had anticipated. Just the same, my own mountain life has ended, and this will no longer continue as a blog written 9300′ above mean sea level. Today Google Earth says it’s–let me check–a hair under 500′. And a few weeks from now, it’ll split the difference, settling for six months at least in the Mile-High City.

For the time being, though, it’s enough to have come home after this longest span spent away–six months, longer than any other single period outside the St. Louis metro area. Yet since I first left for college five years ago, coming home has meant less and less with each go around, I imagine following a pattern set eons ago with the first crop of students to leave crying mothers behind. This time, with the house prepared for sale, my room stripped and re-painted and all the effects removed to meet realtors’ requirements for sterility, it has transformed into nothing more than a familiar floor plan with a dog I’ve known for 13 years. And a mother. It’s Mother’s Day after all.

House or no house, crossing all those cornfields brings back the supersaturated memories of growing up Midwestern, the Steak ‘n Shakes and riverfront fireworks. Humid afternoons and snows days for six inches the night before. Counting silos out the car windows. If the East Coast has forgotten the Midwest, it has just as much forgotten a suburban sensibility born of hard, tangible work and big family reunions.

Have you ever looked at a map of Illinois? Traced its rail lines and highways to discover the towns built for the sole purpose of supplying grain to a hungry nation? The main street parallels the tracks; the elevator rises higher than the church steeple, yet you watch the Tour de France rapt. What curious towns! What culture! Oh, Languedoc! Ici, je suis ailleurs.

I’m leaving the Midwest, of course, but I want so badly to stand up for it in its fight against irrelevance, its perceived stagnation. But by every objective measure, I can’t. In 2008, St. Louis finally staunched an exodus over half a century old while Phoenix continued to balloon and New York set more population records. The coasts are better educated, per capita incomes higher. I’m left with this vague emotional appeal and the waning grandeur of a city that hosted the first Olympic Games seen in the New World, then looked inward and set about its own destruction. See: Pruitt-Igoe. And for a counterpoint: Peter Cooper Village.

There is hope yet, but yes, for now this is coming home.

To wander… is to live? Or: 2827.43 square miles 5 May 2010

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I started packing a week ago, eventually stripping my walls of posters: the collage of ski maps came down without any fanfare, no eulogy for A-Basin and Vail and Brighton and all the rest that hung there as I drifted off to sleep. Teenage girls doze to David Beckham, but for six months, I fantasized about fresh powder, the next untracked run, the opportunity of the West.

Friends, family and Vail Resorts guests had all heard that these months spent in the pursuit and attainment of happiness constituted my mental decompression after college. I’d spent 18 years in school fearing an A-, and when the Peace Corps fell through in October, the trajectory I’d plotted since high school left me hanging like Wile E. Coyote, 47 feet over the edge of the cliff. Cue the double-take. But the thousand-foot freefall never followed.

To be sure, I’d worried it would: six-months as a ski bum would render a WM degree useless. Prospective employers would read “squandered potential” not “vacation coordinator” as the first line on my resume. And then I arrived in Colorado. I began to meet people, to experience a life unmoored from expectation. The possibility of it. Adrift.

This morning turned up an article on the predictability of human behavior, that triangulation of cell phone signals indicated their users rarely ventured more than thirty miles from their houses. Work, food, home, rec center–sometimes. The patterns remained the same. The average cell phone user, we discovered, was not Carmen San Diego. Far from it. She lived in a 2827.43 square mile bubble. The Truman Show, creepy as it was, came closest to mapping the extent of our lives.

So what would it mean to press against the confines of our bubbly pen? To wander, as wayfarers in life. To watch the sunsets from one thousand different peaks and one thousand different beaches. The salty, piney air alive and for those last gleaming moments, ourselves as well… living well beyond the humdrum. These are the possibilities held just outside the reach of expectation. The study abroad semester? The European vacation? Forms and shells, already freighted with the anticipation of a “cultural experience,” narratives for the most part written before they begin. Like Mad Libs. Are we really the richer for that?

No, that’s bad form, to make a point with a question. I’ll restate it: we are the poorer for the eventual fulfillment of those narratives. At every turn, the student abroad wonders, “Is this it? Is this the authentic experience? Have I really achieved whatever I came here seeking?” And maybe at some point, rounding the corner the student will run across a local doing something peculiarly local, say putting out a tin of milk for the cats, and the student will have discovered… something. That is, until the window next door reveals a young man playing World of Warcraft. Such is the evanescence  of perfection.

But to wander, without expectation… I’m not sure. Can we ever again approach the world as a child might, in awe of even the most mundane? Wandering seems to offer that possibility because of its disjunction from seeking. The narrative of fulfillment disappears and life’s experience washes by. We are left free to roam and discover without the need to prove their worth through anecdote and observation.

We won’t find the end in the experience, since that entails events already assimilated, but in the ongoing process “getting experience.” I make a subtle distinction, to be sure, yet consider the difference between someone content to experience new things and a collector of experiences. The latter expresses a desire to talk about having done X. “I need to be able to say I climbed a fourteener” etc. The former, though, lives in the present. Lives. Right. Now.

Even after six months as a ski bum, I still can’t say I lived that way for more than the briefest of moments. But I’d like to try. I’d like to wander.

In Transit(ion) 4 May 2010

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The process of packing/moving/saying goodbye has eaten most of the last several days. You can hope for a more meaningful entry in the next day or so. Promise.

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