Column 50

I spent most of my life wanting to be more alone: wanting to leave neighborhood pickup whiffle ball games early so that I could instead go read a book, wanting my own bedroom at home instead of sharing with my brother, wanting to leave home for college and, once here, waiting anxiously to have a single. No roommate for me; I just wanted to be alone.

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That fantasy of seclusion is deeply carved into the American psyche, built into the narratives of every successful politician and every movie superhero. Even the Bible sends its protagonist to the wilderness for rebirth. We aspire to retreat into the backwoods when all else fails, and then to wall ourselves off in gated houses ringed by hedges when we succeed. While we work towards that lofty vision, we make do with white wires that plug music into our heads and lounges that have been converted into dorms because we don’t value the space that we provide as much as we value the contributions of a few more paying customers.

Even in our romantic efforts, such as they are at this place, we tend towards the solitary. There is no lonelier moment than the long walk home the day after a meaningless encounter, no deeper connection in a single drunken rendezvous with a stranger, where the conversation is scattered, not remembered, or entirely absent. We say that we would like to fix this, but we never take action to change.

We have become far too skilled at being alone together.

This is my fiftieth and final column for the Campus. While turning in my thesis last week might have seemed a more momentous occasion, these pieces stacked on top of each other would make a taller pile. In a little over a week I will ski down the Snow Bowl, pack my possessions into my car, and hope that it doesn’t break down on my way out of the state. I will finally have the option to be completely alone. I could call it soul-searching, or recharging, tell everyone that I need some space. But at long last, perhaps later than I might have hoped, I know that is not what I want.

We blaze trails not so that we might escape the world, but so that others might follow. Life is better with companionship. We are not born alone nor do we die that way; we are born into the embrace of our families and when we die they gather around to recount the happy moments of our lives, and the moments in between where we steal solitude from company are the moments most likely to later bear the tinge of regret.

As I move on into the next chapter, I do not regret the excesses of my time in college: the times that the night ended and the sun rose over the Green Mountains while my friends and I sat and talked about everything and nothing, the hours spent in Proctor over many tiny courses, or the morning classes that I blew off to head to make fresh tracks at the Snow Bowl. What I do regret are the times that I held back. I regret waiting until junior year to try out the sailing and debate teams. I regret waiting to join my social house and the Campus editorial staff until my senior spring, content for too long to contribute only this column. I regret valuing solitude and down time over team spirit and hard work.

The best friends that I have made here have been when I have taken a chance and given other people the chance to reject me flat out or welcome me into their circle. That may seem like an incredibly obvious point for a final column, but it is one that we only think about at orientation and I know too many people here with that same problem. Instead of complaining about hookup culture, ask somebody out the dinner, drinks or skiing. A shocking number of my male and female friends complain about the lack of dating at Middlebury. Too many seem to fear that the sheer act of asking reeks of desperation, but the regret of not acting far outlasts whatever embarrassment it might cause (especially if you don’t write about it in the Campus). Middlebury only changes when we do.

Some last shout-outs from my bully pulpit: Hannah — I was convinced that we would be at each other’s throats, but I have really looked forward to working with you every week to put this section together.  Kyle and Alex — you have done an amazing job this semester. Middlebury — fossil fuel divestment makes financial sense. Rachel and the SGA — please reconsider the community education requirement. Dining services — more taco days! To everyone who read “Apply Liberally” over the past four years — it’s been a pleasure. I leave you with the words of President Josiah Bartlett (D-Sorkinland):

What’s next? 

Illustration by Nolan Ellsworth

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One Strike and You’re Bankrupt

The day that I was supposed to head home for winter break and the holidays, I put my foot down on the brake pedal of my car and it didn’t stop. It was a scary moment that could have resulted in serious damage, so I decided to take my car to the mechanic before braving the 300 mile journey to Western New York. Two days later and $1200 poorer, I finally made it home.

I didn’t buy that car. I never had to scrape together enough savings or make a monthly car payment. When he bought it new in 2002, my grandfather had — rightly — called it the last car that he would ever own. It was my first.

I don’t pay the insurance on that car, either. My parents cover the cost of that through their policy (and if they haven’t given that recent thought, this will be a very expensive column for me). I pay for the gas and the maintenance costs, and for small repairs. But when calamity strikes, my parents are still my first call. This does necessarily not make me lazy; when my parents wanted to buy their first house, they too called their parents, who probably never could have called on their own for such a favor. If the goal of each generation is to leave their children better off, then success is not something that happens overnight. It builds over years, through family, across generations. We benefit from the hard work and good fortune of those who came before.

Most people in the United States do not have this option. Their ancestors weren’t on the boat as early, or were denied the same opportunities, or were unlucky. If they run into car trouble around the holidays, they must take it out of the money that they might otherwise spend on Christmas presents for their kids, on family trips, or on visits to the dentist. Or they scrap their car and hope that a bus comes along. Millions of Americans live just one piece of misfortune away from utter financial ruin. Some of them may be lazy or unimaginative. Some of them might not have given their bootstraps a tug. But the vast majority are pulling with all of their might, and their fingers are getting sore, but they stay locked in poverty, struggling to make things work out somehow. Until one day their brake pedal sinks to the floor and it all falls apart.

In the alleged economic recovery of the last few years, the type of middle class jobs that come with the type of salary that allows for saving have largely been replaced by low-wage or minimum wage jobs. With a federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour, a worker who might need a car to get to their job every day would need to work for more than 160 hours — four full-time weeks — just to pay for those repairs. Ford could help by making more reliable cars, but the federal government can help by raising the minimum wage, which when adjusted for inflation is a third lower than its original level. Raising the minimum wage will not slow job growth, especially since many of the worker who would benefit work in service sector jobs that cannot move overseas. Instead, a raise in the wage would help to shift money from record corporate profits and executive compensation to the people who will immediately return that money to the economy. This is not because they lack in thrift, but because their daily needs exceed their daily income.

I have worked in a number of jobs throughout my time in college — landscaper, janitor, web designer, research assistant. For me this has always been a point of pride. I like to think of myself as financially independent and fiscally responsible. But this ignores some inconvenient realities. It ignores the nature of success and the nature of generational improvement. When you are one unexpected serious illness away from bankruptcy, or homelessness, or not being able to afford breakfast for your children — situations that plague millions of Americans — every day is a battle and every spin of the roulette wheel could be deadly. When you struggle to survive it is much more difficult to further your education or build a career. When you struggle to stay out of the ditch it is much more difficult to climb the slippery hill and look beyond it to the stars than if you started two thirds of the way up the slope, where the pitch starts to level. The American Dream is not a rocket ship, but rather a hard slog and the people just starting the trek do not deserve our scorn. They deserve our help.