Sunday, May 30, 2010

Meeting people

The day after my article published the phone at the Liberal Studies Department office was “ringing off the hook.” My program director took calls from deans—(one of them from an airport allegedly)—who were exasperated by the possibility of my story causing a media shitstorm that would potentially plop bad publicity atop Duke’s hallowed halls. My director—who was amused with the article (which I sent to her the day before it published)—responded dispassionately to all inquiries and the storm—as quick as it started—blew over.

As campus admin frenetically dealt with the situation, my article got tossed around on Facebook where I received 86 messages in my inbox the next day. Additionally, over this past semester, I’ve received countless emails, more Facebook messages, and inquiries from the media.

While I was amused with and enjoyed my fifteen minutes of fame, I was concerned about the possible consequences of revealing my secret. I worried that families out to the local ice cream shop would pose with the van for a family photo—as if it were some scenic roadside pull off—while I tried to nap inside. Bored frat boys would devise cruel ways to humor themselves like emptying their beer-filled bladders on my tires. Women—unperturbed with the sickly pallor of my pectorals and lacking the sense of smell—would chase me in ravenous packs through the streets.

Surprisingly, though, the reactions in the virtual and real worlds were vastly different. When I got back to Duke, I was glad to see that I’d maintained my precious anonymity. No one knew who I was. There were no families, no frat boys, and certainly no packs of ravenous women.

All this past semester, only two students approached me after recognizing me from my shirtless, mid-chew Salon picture. On another occasion, a middle-aged woman out of her car window smilingly said, “Hey van man.” I shot her a look of surprise, a smile, then continued on my merry way. That’s it.

The virtual world proved far more interested in my experiment. Over email, fellow vandwellers in college told me about the secrets they’d been keeping from their campuses. Several high school teachers and even a professor told me they had their students read my article to complement their lessons on Thoreau and transcendentalism. A couple freshman were curious how to get jobs with the Park Service. I received several free dinner offers and had three meals with middle-aged homosexual men alone.

One girl traveled all the way from San Francisco to see the van. Amanda was my first and only pilgrim. She was a student in NYC doing her final project on escapism. She bought a one-way ticket to San Fran and found her way out east via hitchhiking and rideshares. I took her to my class, bought her a coffee and spread a tarp out on the grass by my van where we gazed at the dozen stars that shone through Durham’s air and light pollution.


I had dinner with Viv and George in Chapel Hill who later asked me to watch their dogs for a weekend. I emptied out the frozen dinners in their freezer, happy to take a break from noodles and cereal for a few days.


I got invited to a dinner hosted by a couple Taiwanese students. When one of the guests asked where I lived, I told her and she exclaimed, “Oh my god! You’re the van man! You don’t even smell!” After expressing more surprise that I didn’t carry a cloud of fleas around with me, I asked her to translate an article written in Taiwan about me, which was without note except that Taiwan—through some miscommunication—thinks that I live on “1 yuan a day” which equals 16 cents.


And then I got an email from David—a minimalist, misanthrope, doomer, and hermit who’s known in circles as the “grandfather of the introvert liberation movement.” I knew we’d get along.

He lives in a newly built Gothic revival cottage surrounded by woods on a gravel road in the middle of Nowhere, North Carolina that he calls “Acorn Abbey.” He has a blog here. I spent a weekend with him in February. David’s retired and doesn’t particularly like manual labor so he offered me free room and board this summer if I’d help him build a fence for his organic garden and tend to the crops and his four chickens.


I was offered my job with the Park Service where I’d worked the past two summers. It would have been another 10K in my pocket for relatively enjoyable work. I was tempted, but I have other goals, namely to:

1. Have a 50-book summer. Reading a book, for me, is like jogging. Sometimes I love jogging and sometimes I hate it, but if I don’t do it routinely, my body, like my mind, weakens and withers. I’ll never get around to reading all 50, but I’ll surpass—in pursuit of achieving a lofty goal—what I’d accomplish with a more modest one.

2. Enroll in an independent study course. I will be advised by a history professor in a course we’ve designed called “Student Debt and the Self” I’m curious how debt turns us into a certain type of citizen and I hope to explain, philosophically, the personal and social ramifications caused by debt.

3. Write a book proposal. After my article published, a literary agent inquired if I’d be interested in expanding the article into a book. It’s typically a 70-page document from what I’ve heard and I’m still working on assembling a table of contents. It’s both an exciting and daunting project. There’s little chance it’ll get picked up, but I knew I’d need to pursue this with every ounce of mettle I could muster. I need time, not a paycheck.

4. Live the good life. More and more, I fantasize about living in a Walden-esque cabin on the edge of the woods—a home base where I can yield crops, yet remain active as a citizen. There’s no sense in glorifying a certain sort of life. I need to test my theories. That’s why I’m spending my summer with David.

I believe there’s a happy medium somewhere between work of the mind and work of the body, which I haven’t been able to find at Duke or on my working tour across the continent. Here at Acorn Abbey, for the past three weeks, I’ve been building a fence, planting and tending crops while reading voraciously. I’m living something close to my idea of the good life.

While my living costs this summer will almost be non-existent, my bank account is slowly draining. I have four more courses to complete before getting my degree and just enough money—barring some medical catastrophe—to pay for them. My loan-free college-degree experiment is almost complete. While this experiment has helped me save money, earn a college degree, achieve national notoriety, and draw a line between my wants and my needs, one of the most fulfilling aspects of my goal has been the human connections I’ve made.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I`d buy your book. Love your blog.

-Y

HAZARDOUS PIONEERS said...

Awesome to hear man,
Keep us posted on what you learn in your 'trial-run' at the good-life there on David's plot.

Blessings,

HazardousPioneers

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you will receive a major lesson in life this summer. Good luck, I hope it lives up to your expectations. If nothing else, you will become aware of some of the potential limitations that are faced with every "fork in the road. Enjoy.

Heb

VJP said...

No fleas, but yes ticks. Sorry.
:-)
Viv

Kevin M said...

I too have often thought that living in a cabin on enough land to grow crops for my family would be fun with hard work mixed in, but wonder if that's just "grass is greener syndrome" or something that I'd really enjoy. I'm looking forward to reading about your experiences this summer.

Ken said...

Y- Thanks for the kind words. IF the book happens--and that's a big "if"--it'll be a good year and a half before I'm finished writing(considering that I'm in school) and even longer for it to go through the publishing process.

Hazardous--good to hear from you again. Summer's going swell. Just planted 2 peach trees, 3 blueberry bushes, a fig and two grapes.

Heb--Life lessons. I can only hope.

Viv--I've had two more ticks embedded in my ankles in the last week alone. I think they pick them up when I jog through knee-tall grass. They're starting to challenge the mosquito as my most hated insect.

Kevin--Yes, the 'grass is greener' syndrome can be mighty delusive. All is well here so far. You have no idea how much joy I get from sitting on the porch and looking at the product of my day's work (fence built, trees planted, etc.). It's far more satisfying than, say, looking over an old essay.

-Heidi said...

What a wonderful place - Acorn Abbey! I wanted to comment on the Into the Woods blog about the garden (especially the small green tomato), but the site wanted me to login to Wordpress to leave a comment - and I don't have a Wordpress account. Anyway, have you had fried green tomatoes? You can only get them if you grow your own garden - oh I miss them! You look like your in your element. :)

Ken said...

Heidi--element, indeed! I'm sure David would love for you to share your comments--just click on the comment link and you can create one. And yes I've had fried green tomatoes--though I don't remember if I liked them.

KClowlife said...

as a straight guy, new to your blog, I hope this comment doesn't sound stupid or anti-gay.

I myself have enjoyed some dinners with middle aged gay men. Great conversation and I really did enjoy the company.

But I never know how to take the invitation. I didn't know how the first time it happened in 1992 and I still feel awkward today.

When I used to occasionally go to gay bars with friends because they were the only dance clubs in some podunk towns we lived in, I would explicitly warn guys who wanted to buy me a drink that I was straight. But if some dude kissed me on the neck as I headed to the can I didn't brush him off or tell him to piss off or whatever. I mean, I'm the one who went to a gay dance club. You can't get pissed at them for not knowing when techno is playing at 11.

If you're comfortable with it, do you mind talking about the invitations to a meal with the guys and how all that went down? Maybe I'm just uptight, but it seems to be an area where even accepting open minded people aren't actually talking about these experiences we have.

Thanks,
Ryan

Ken said...

Ryan--Believe it or not, I have my own "straight guy in a gay bar" story, though I'd rather keep that one under wraps.

There's nothing remarkable about my encounters with gay men. One guy made some flattering remarks about my picture via email, but I told him I played on the other team. He said he knew and we ended up getting together and having a wonderful conversation--so good we've been in contact for a while. My other two encounters were set at restaurants. They had partners, were middle-aged, and, like the first, the conversations were great. I'd kind of forgot that there was a stigma about gay-straight social outings, which, of course, there ought not to be.