We, the Mobile

As I rode home from work on Friday, I decided I needed to get out of Richmond. For me, a 70-mile drive to Charlottesville is far enough to feel like I got “away” from my routine life. That drive down I-64 was the beginning of an idea that has everything to do with highways and hallowed halls: the faster you can get somewhere the closer it feels.

I’ve been told that humans have always considered a reasonable commute to be about a half of an hour to an hour of travel. Walking, that would be about 3.5 miles. Driving, that could be a trip from Trenton to New York. Flying, that’s a D.C. to Chicago commute that no child dreams to have when they grow up. While the amount of time we travel to work has remained relatively the same, the increase in distance has been significant. The affects of this distance are profound.

In the early 1900s, before the Model T and good roads, many wealthy Americans owned second homes just outside the city. In Boston, for instance, this was the rural getaway known as Jamaca Plain. Near Richmond, it was the neighborhood of Bon Air. Originally a retreat ten miles outside the city, Bon Air was frequented by Richmonders who wanted to get “away” from the stifling life of an industrial city. Today, Bon Air is near the middle of a metropolitan region and considered just another inner suburb. Meanwhile, the wealthiest residents are more likely to have second homes in Sun Valley or Naples than rural Virgina. The idea of buying a second home 10 miles away seems absurd. The faster you can get somewhere, the closer it feels. But is it actually close?

Many American cities today are populated by the children of faraway parents that raised them and watched them leave. I am one of these children. I was given the chance to move over 1,000 miles from home to live somewhere new and exciting. I have been given the chance to go out on my own. But when did this become normal? We, the millennials, are the fifth generation of Americans with access to cheap gasoline and the third generation to grow up with interstate highways.

We grew up as the unsettled generation of an increasingly mobile nation. There have always been wealthy people, but there have not always been turbojets and 70 mph speed limits. This has changed the way we see distance and separation.

For instance, I live about three-and-a-half hours away from my hometown of Tyler, TX. By plane. So that’s about 22 hours away by car and 349 hours by foot. When I left Tyler for college I didn’t really think it was a big deal. Now, it feels significantly farther than I originally imagined. In my sixth year of life away from Texas I can say there is much I have learned while I’ve been away. I wouldn’t change my decision to leave if I had the chance. I love the city where I live and the university where I studied.

But there is this simple, lingering question I am asked every once in a while that I can never completely answer: “So, how’d you end up in Richmond?”

Like most, I tend to focus on the “pull” factors of migration. Oh, I came here for college and fell in love with the city. I usually also make a joke about how the University’s website was easy to navigate or that Richmond wasn’t as cold as Boston, another city I considered for school. But why, as a senior in high school, did I not consider a single school in Texas or even somewhere closer like New Orleans or St. Louis? Why the 1,000-mile trek? There are a few easy answers I can think of:

  1. My brothers did it
  2. My parents let us
  3. I knew I would only be “a flight away”

But that doesn’t really answer the question. While there was a draw to move away, there were also significant “push” factors that sent me away from my southern home. In the land of football and Rick Perry, I didn’t really think there was a place for a friendly writer trying to make a difference. I made lots of unfavorable generalizations to justify my move away, but at the same time I was more focussed on where I was headed. When I applied to college, I dreamed of a place where people liked to read and write, where Christians didn’t all look the same, and where it wasn’t weird to suck at basketball. I didn’t know if I would find that, but I figured it was worth a shot. Everywhere I went in Texas, I saw the same story and realized that, while I think it’s a great story, it would be a hard one to fit into.

So I got out. I became one of the many confused Texpatriots simultaneously displaying a Texas flag and critiquing that beautiful, mineral-rich place.

And here I am: living in an old mansion in Richmond, working at an amazing university that also happens to be my alma mater. My neighborhood is both dangerous and beautiful depending on who you ask. My house is used as a tutoring site for hundreds of kids each year. My city has representations of American architecture going back to the 1700s, fine art, public murals, excellent restaurants, and more. It’s not D.C., but it’s also not snooty and it suits me well.

And yet, if you notice, all the positives aren’t really adding up. There’s always the question, “But what?” Living in Richmond is awesome, but it involves this thing I call the golden triangle of growing up: the pull between a career, a significant other, and family/hometown.

This is how it plays out:

Whenever I think about moving home (or at least near family), my first thought is that I can’t go back until I get somewhere in my career. There’s not much of a market in Tyler for someone who made up their own major in college. Then, whenever I think about advancing my career (a word I routinely misspell) which might involve grad school somewhere far away, I immediately think about my girlfriend and wonder how the timing of both will work out. Thinking about our relationship then takes me back to thinking about moving home and I imagine a life of holiday swaps and long-distance in-laws. Again, when I think about home, I think about my career pulling me all across the nation and I wonder what my little sister will be up to as she finishes high school and enters young adulthood herself. I wonder if my parents will be sitting on our back patio enjoying those cool spring afternoons in Tyler while I’m who-knows-where doing who-knows-what. I think about my three older brothers who are all living in this golden triangle as well and I wonder if we will ever manage to live near each other again.

I wonder if I will ever get to move home and whether it will still be home when I get there.

When you’re in a relationship with someone that’s in a similar situation, you also realize that at some point one of you will have to bend for the other. That’s the compound reality of this golden triangle: both of you can never have all three at the same time. And since both people in relationships today have educations and aspirations, it takes a lot of energy to make it all line up. Often people choose to go their separate ways, some struggle through the long-distance life, and others manage to work it out in the same place. Even when it does work out, it can be a gauntlet of long-term planning and flexibility.

That brings me back to my trip to Charlottesville. I’m currently sitting at a coffee shop with four friends I’ve met since moving out to Virginia. Between the two couples and myself, we represent five home states: Tennessee, Ohio, Maine, Virginia and Texas. We are all living in the reality of the triangle:

I am from Tyler, TX and my girlfriend is from Medford, NJ and Sanibel, FL. We both currently live in Richmond, but our families are scattered from Florida to California. My friend, Max, who is originally from Portland, ME, currently works and lives in D.C. where he met his girlfriend, Shannon, a native Tennesseean (who also moved around growing up), in D.C. just before she moved to Charlottesville for law school at UVA. Max is currently applying to law schools around the mid-Atlantic region and hopes to end up somewhat close by. Margo, another friend from college, is currently living in her hometown of Cincinnati and hoping to start medical school in the fall. She got into the University of Cincinnati program but is trying her darndest to get into a med school in Virginia so she can live near her boyfriend, Joe. Joe, a native of Richmond (the only native Virginian in the group), is currently in the UVA post-bac program so that that he can apply for med schools this summer and start a year from now in the fall. If Margo starts the program in Cincinnati, he will likely move to Cincinnati to work while he does his best to get into the same program or, if he only gets into a program in Virginia, she may try and transfer after her first two years.

It’s no wonder some are calling us the most stressed-out generation.

Max made the comment last night that we are living in an era of “progressive instability” as young adults in Twenty-First-Century America.

“Dramatic instability,” he added.

Since the best opportunities are no longer nearby, we find ourselves settling into LDRs (long-distance relationships) while we find jobs or attend grad school. Even if you don’t want to go to grad school, you’ve most likely thought about it. Max made the comment that the economy expects us to have graduate educations, but doesn’t facilitate the experience. Also, with MBA programs like UVA’s Darden that charge $76,000 a year for in-state tuition, our generation is making history in the way of personal debt.

With the sluggish economy, vertical mobility is synonymous with geographic mobility and cross-country job searches are the norm. This was once the time of life when people began to build stability, moved home, and started a new chapter of life. Some of my friends have managed to work that out, but many of us genuinely didn’t know it was an option. We, the mobile, have followed the allure of big cities and fresh lives.

No longer a time for building community, the twenties have become a very dynamic stage of life. One misstep and you’ll be roadkill in this “Great Recession” that sees unemployment as a mark of personal failure: you can’t get a job if you don’t have experience and you can’t get experience if you don’t have a job. Of course, it can work out, but it’s a little terrifying at the same time. And we are all living in this reality from day to day. Every once in a while I think about all of this and I take a very deep breath. It’s just too much to consider it all at the same time.

In a decade, I hope I look back and laugh at the golden triangle of growing up. I hope we will have a chance to tell stories and swap war wounds on the other side. I hope we all keep our sanity in the process and I hope we remember what matters most. What makes people happy today is what made people happy thousands of years ago: close relationships, good work, and unconditional love.

In the world of the golden triangle, it’s simply a question of where.

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3 responses to “We, the Mobile

  1. very thankful this was brought to my attention, thanks for taking the time to write all of that

  2. Steven Rogers

    Michael, this is brilliant. Thanks for sharing, and I, too, look forward to the day when we can swap war wounds and see how it all worked out. 🙂 Love you.

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