Sunday, May 16, 2010

The parents' visit

Last month my parents and aunt visited me in North Carolina. My mom and aunt hadn’t taken vacations in a while and because my father was on temporary work disability they figured it was the perfect time to catch up with their firstborn and tour a new city.

It was a bit of a shock for me to see them in Durham. My family and personal life had been segregated from one another for years, so seeing them in town was like bumping into characters from your favorite TV show who you're never supposed to see in real life. While you might think it would be cool to chance upon George, Elaine, and Kramer at your local coffee shop, it’d probably be a little creepy too.

Their vacation lasted five days, starting with dinner at a swanky restaurant in the trendy part of Durham called Blu, followed by their first tour of the van.

I wondered how that tour would go. My mom—as I’ve shared in past entries—has never been fond of my experiment. In fact, she probably took more pains to keep the van a secret than I did. From what I’ve learned, she’d never hesitate to brag to her friends about her son going to Duke while deliberately failing to mention the whole oh-and-he’s-sorta-living-in-his-van thing.

Whenever I called home, the topic of the van was rarely broached. We’d talk about the weather, my classes, my summer plans. Perhaps she thought if she didn’t acknowledge it, the van might go away. She responded the same way I thought she’d react if I told her I was gay, preferring to hope that I was just going through a “phase.”

Finally, toward the end of our phone conversations—when she couldn’t help herself any longer—she’d say, “You’re going to get in so much trouble when they find out, you know” followed by “It-just-isn’t-normal.”

My dad, on the other hand, never seemed to think that the van was that big of a deal. While he’d never go out of his way to overtly encourage my travels and experiments, he was always passively supportive; the good cop to my mom’s bad. But there were points in the past when even he had hoped that I’d live more conventionally. Whenever I phoned home from Coldfoot, Alaska—where I worked as a tour guide and cook—he’d routinely ask, “So when are you going to get a real job?”

Sometime in between “real” and “job” I’d picture myself as Charlie Chaplin helplessly transported from one end of a factory to the other over a series of conveyor belts and gears. He might as well have asked, “So when are you going to dread waking up five days a week, be forced to work next to people with whom you have nothing in common except that you all hate your jobs, gain twenty-five pounds, and spend eight hours of your day locked up in a cubicle/factory/retail store?” Or, to put it more succinctly: “So when are you going to start hating your life?”

My response was always a cheery and wholehearted, “Never,” prefaced with a hearty guffaw.

I’d already had my fair share of “real jobs.” Since my late teens I’d been a skate sharpener, public skate rink guard, supermarket cashier, cart pusher, landscaper, lodge-cleaner, guide, cook, and UPS package handler. I’d been pelted in the back of my head with ice balls thrown from anarchic third-grade juveniles, in toilet bowls I’d acquainted myself with all forms, matters, and phases of shit, and I’d removed dead pigeons from stacks of lumber at The Home Depot. I’d suffered premature back pains, I’d wasted 20-70 hours a week on unfulfilling, mind-numbing, dishonorable labor, and I’d learned what if felt like to dread waking up five days a week. All for $8/hour or less.

These were all low-end, subordinate positions, and some of the worst that the first-world has to offer, but by the time I’d finished paying off my debt, I had seen enough “real jobs,” “real people” and the “real world”—(all of which seemed hardly “real” to me)—to know that I wanted no part in the world my parents lived in.

Seeing the consequences of their relentless toil certainly didn’t improve my impression of this world, either. My dad had little-to-no feeling in his left hand, possibly the result of Carpal tunnel syndrome from handling factory machinery all his life, or from a spinal injury he sustained when he got hit by a drunk driver on his commute to work. As we walked to the restaurant, my mom limped from an ankle injury caused by 35 years of standing as a nurse. My aunt—though in no physical pain—had plenty of reasons to complain about coworkers, schedules, and the hospital she worked at.

But this was their time off from work; a five day slice of leisure sandwiched in between decades of labor.

As we walked to the restaurant, my mom—as she’s wont to do—assailed me with an unbroken string of questions: “Do you like it down here? Where are some other good places to eat? What is Josh up to these days?” After each question I’d think—not about the question—but about how I’d never get a chance to answer any of them. Baffled bystanders might have wondered who this relentless inquisitor was and why she never paused to assuage her curiosity.

When we got to the restaurant, our waiter introduced himself as “Quentin” who my aunt called “Clinton” for the rest of the meal. We discussed my summer plans. I told them I wanted to read a whole bunch of books, enroll in an independent study course, and hike the John Muir Trail in California. There were the usual grumblings whenever I tell them anything that seems even vaguely outside the norm.

“Kenny, those trails are dangerous,” my aunt said. “You shouldn’t go alone. Some wolves just killed a woman in Alaska.”

When dinner arrived, I shared some of my thoughts on food, namely how I wanted to one day pledge to only buy local, organic and ethically-grown food. My mom and aunt traded eye rolls and quaint expressions. After mentioning some of the ghastly images I’d seen of chickens in the film, Food Inc., my mom blurted, “What do I care? I’m no chicken.”

“Well, aren’t you worried about what you put into your body? Or the consequences of factory farms?”

“I’m sixty. I don’t care. I’m going to die soon, anyway,” she said.

“She’s been saying that since she was thirty,” my aunt added.

When the food came, my father and I wolfishly gobbled down our entrées without commentary while my mother and aunt critiqued their meal’s finer points. My aunt would periodically tilt her head back, and declare, “Delicious,” adding, “Best [insert entrée] I ever had.”

After the three of them squabbled to pay the bill, we walked over to the van for their long-awaited tour.

Once we got within eyeshot of the Econoline, my mom approached warily, slowing her gait as she got closer, as if she was nearing a wild animal.

“Ken, you need new tires!” my dad exclaimed, swiping his index finger over the balding treads.

As they circled the exterior, my mother maintained a dignified silence, trying, but failing, to hide her scowl. My aunt muttered under her breath, “Kenny, I can’t wait till you move out of this thing.”

I realized, of course, that living in a van isn’t normal, but I still thought it was a little strange for them to think that it was strange. Especially when you consider my family’s history.

My father emigrated from Scotland to Canada in the 1970’s as a young man, seeking work in Canada’s factories. His ancestors came from Lithuania. My mom’s grandparents were immigrant Poles who settled in Western New York. My mom and dad met in Canada, had me and my brother, and when I was six we moved to a rural-turning-suburban neighborhood in the town of Wheatfield, New York.

We were one of the first families to have a home built in our development so my brother and I would catch frogs and skate on a pond on an undeveloped lot next to our home. Within a few years, though, families came, houses were built, our pond disappeared, and the woods we built forts in were denuded.

As I watched the land change around me, my family changed too. We moved away from relatives in Canada and my grandparents died when I was a boy. Aside from my aunt and the ancestors in Scotland who I’d never meet, I had no extended family. I didn’t have a sense of identity with my ever-transforming neighborhood nor did I have any historical ties to country, community, and home.

I was like a sapling in a pot, nurtured on-the-go. I learned more about change than normalcy, an ambulatory existence than a stationary one. Really, between the many early boyhood changes to which I was exposed and my family’s nomadic history, it should have been no surprise that my home would come to have wheels.

But my parents had discontinued their wandering ways. They sunk their roots into Wheatfield. This was their American dream. They’d both grown up in working class families. My mom shared a small flat with her parents and two siblings in North Tonawanda, NY. My dad grew up in a house crowded with seven brothers and a sister in a blue-collar Scottish town. My mom, as a girl, was embarrassed that her mom had a chicken coop in the backyard. My dad, as a boy, got fruit for Christmas. They were born into industrious middleclass families who knew that you could make it by moving around and working hard.

My parents had spent their careers moving up. From flat to home, city to suburb, middle class to a few echelons higher in the middle class. All that hard work. All that climbing. All that moving around. And all that investment—time, money, and love—they put into me. And this is what their son lives in: a van—an ironic symbol, no doubt reminding them of the poverty they worked so hard to escape.

They all stuffed into the van, sat on the bed and I gave them a tour. I showed them my stove, my food, the TV and laundry basket.

It’s hard to think of moving back as moving forward; of climbing down the economic ladder as “climbing up.” It’s hard for parents to think of their son as “successful” when “success” is measured largely by the amount of security, comfort and wealth one has. While my parents appreciated and strove to attain these things, they, thank goodness, knew that these were not the only things to live for. They valued temperance, honesty, honor, loyalty, a puritanical work ethic while allowing themselves the pleasure to savor moments of idleness. So, from their tutelage I gathered what lessons struck me as right and true, while casting a skeptical eye at those not in accord with my sense and judgment.

Poet Kahlil Gibran says parents—who he addresses as “you”—may house their children's bodies but not their souls because “their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit... You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

Seeing my parents crunched in the van, laughing, and telling self-deprecating jokes, I knew that—in some ways—the apple had not fallen far from the tree. My mom—who’d caught me surreptitiously scribbling the day’s events into a notepad for this very entry—would occasionally dictate for me: “Mom is unhappy” or “Mom’s worried about son.” I overheard one of the many faux arguments my parents perform that ended with my dad beaming, “I just changed them today! Geez. How many times do you want me to change my underwear in a week?”

Yet I was different, too. I wanted my “arrow” to soar above and beyond the “real world” of which they were a part, through poisoned clouds, over inky oceans, and past suburban sprawl to a house of tomorrow where I mustn’t pay for the things I want with a life of monotonous labor. I love my van for the freedom it allows me. They love their two-story house for the security it provides them. Why can’t both these worlds be real? Why must one be considered crazy by virtue of it being abnormal?

We spent another four days and many meals together. By the end, they were itching to get back home and back to work. While we didn’t leave with differences explained, insights gleaned, or new appreciations for one another’s ideologies, there was a mutual and silent acceptance for each other’s values, beliefs, and livelihoods. While differences tried to yank us apart, a few family-saving commonalities bound us together.

Before they took off, they handed me a bag of food and tried to stuff hundred dollar bills in my pockets. I gave them hugs and said goodbye.


Anonymous said...

Just curious Ken, in 5 to 10 years, what do you hope your life will be like? Will you be working? Will you be married & have children? If so, how will you support them?

-Heidi said...

"waking up five days a week, be forced to work next to people with whom you have nothing in common except that you all hate your jobs, gain twenty-five pounds, and spend eight hours of your day locked up in a cubicle"

Ken, you just described several decades of my life! I knew I was miserable... really miserable! But I needed to make sure my children had a "normal" upbringing - well, that was the excuse anyway. If I knew then, what I know now... I'd never have done such a thing to them. I'm very proud of my adult children, but I could have done much better by them.

Today I live in a van (class B);
today I *really* live the one life I have;
today I no longer listen to people like "anonymous";
today I have my priorities in order;
today I'm happy;
today will be another adventure...

- all these things you already know and you already have. What more could a parent want for their child?

Tracy said...

That's hilarious. When I e-mailed my mom a link to the tumbleweed tiny houses and told her that after graduate school I wanted to sell my house, move into one of those, work five years, and retire, she laughed. Now she's thinking of getting one for her retirement and taking it down to Costa Rica. ;-) Families are funny.

Anonymous said...

Back to the practical - what's the actual status of the tires?

Lyndsie said...

Are you sure we don't have the same parents? Maybe it's a generational thing, maybe it's a working class thing... whatever it is, I'm in the same boat (sans van-dwelling, that is).

Anonymous said...

What one's parents consider successful is a strange thing. I eventually stopped caring. In many regards I think of myself as a failure, but, I've got my own blog for that...

I don't know what your dad means when he asks when you'll get a real job, but if I were asking you the same question, it would be somewhat like me asking you a 'knock-knock' joke: I already know the answer and there's an element of not-so-funny humor in it. Perhaps your dad already knows the answer-- I mean, you don't really think he's expecting you to answer him back with something like "next Tuesday", right?

In my 3rd year of medical school I was passed over for an award. 5 students out of 120 were selected for this 'honor', and I wasn't, despite being ranked #1. I was devastated for about 4 hours. After some soul searching I realized that I couldn't base my sense of achievement on awards granted to me by others. It was a very valuable lesson for me: define success for myself.


Bob L. said...

Sounds to me like your parents are doing their job, trying to steer you towards what they recognize as a successful and a happy life. And you are doing your job of trying to find one that fits you. Truly, the apple does not fall far from the tree, but an apple does not, at first, appear to be a tree, does it?

Bob L

Ken said...

Anon—Those are good questions I often ponder. I should first note that I hope I don’t give readers the impression that I plan to use frugality to buy myself some time to loaf and veg out in some sort of fantastical easy-living retirement paradise. That’s the last thing I want. I am too ambitious and motivated to embrace a life of leisure. I am most happy when I feel most useful; when I am most engaged. I’d rot if I did nothing, especially with this surplus of energy. I like to think that frugality, rather, will allow me to pursue jobs, projects and tasks that befit my education, character, and rouse my passions. In other words, frugality will allow me to take a lower-paying job because I won’t have to compromise my values to garner a salary sizable enough to pay the bills of my wasteful expenditures. I really don’t know what my life will be like in 5-10 years. A part of me thinks I’ll be wandering. Or maybe I’ll try to make my daily bread with my writing. Maybe I’ll enroll in a PhD program. Maybe I’ll embark on some moral crusade. These are all viable options, though lately I find myself fantasizing about a place in the woods on the fringe of wild land. My essay is fraught with misleading generalizations, namely that I detest and will do anything to avoid a life of labor. That’s not true at all. I love work. I love both work of the mind, and hard, physical labor. It’s just that I never want to find myself working for a corporation, checking my conscience at the door of my company’s building, filling out timecards, or having bosses tell me when I can spend my measly two weeks of vacation time. I plan on embracing the 16-hour day so long as I get to create it. I suppose I want to grow, hunt, build my own home and live a sustainable sort of life, while also fulfilling what I think are my civic duties. I’d like for my wife and I to home school our children. As 18th century and as delusional as this all may sound, I’ve seen it done and know people who live this way in Alaska. Also, I’m not so naïve to believe I can get away with this sort of lifestyle without some sort of cash income—so compromises most certainly will have to be made. But I most certainly will not be spending 40 hours a week locked in a cubicle or working for some dishonorable employer, which, of course, severely limits my options.

Heidi—What a nice little poem. Perhaps some of our conversation made it into my essay and that’s why my quote reflected your life so well.

Tracy—that’s a great website. Sounds like the carrying out of your plan ought to be documented on a blog of your own.

Ourtake—Tires are pretty awful. A mechanic at Sears had a good chuckle and said they’d barely pass inspection. I would say I need new ones, but they’ve worked superbly. I’ve never had issues in rain, and it snows so rarely down here that good treads are not high on my priority list.

Lyndsie—seems like it may be a conflict as old as mankind.

Surgeon—So many kids self-destruct in college. The stress and the challenge to keep pace with their classmates can be overwhelming. My friend who’s an RA at Harvard told me a couple students committed suicide this year. What a silly and insulated way of thinking. I’d prescribe for students headed down this path to drop out of school and don’t come back until they realize that college is not an arena for competition but a place of learning. Meanwhile, I’d recommend that they look at the mountains and the stars to remind them of how small and meaningless we are in the great scheme of things and how much smaller these trivial “failures” really are. (And, yes, you’re right about my father. I do remember a tone of facetiousness in his queries.)

Bob L- While we’re most certainly shaped by our culture and parents, I like to think that there’s a little sleeping prince inside of each of us who reminds us of our own individually-unique desires and propensities that are brought about independent of exterior influences.

Anonymous said...

Ken, great post. Always very inspirational. If you ever write a book, I will surely get a copy!

Hi Heidi :)

And Tracy, thanks for mentioning tumbleweed tiny houses! I didn't even know those existed! How awesome!

- Eddie D

Concojones said...


Let me first say I love your van-living experiment.

Based on the jobs you have done (and your parents'), do you think you can conclude corporate life sucks? I've spent a few years in it, and I also had an issue where I was motivated but I felt I couldn't do my own thing. But I still had a good time. Your expectations are WAY too negative. I think it's such a pity that you're discarding the great option that corporate life is while not having tried a decent job in it. Also, why not gain some 'for profit' experience and then become self-employed?

Good luck and keep us posted!

Kevin M said...

I really enjoyed the post, Ken. I'm going to have my son read it when he's older. You explained the struggles and joys of finding your own path in life much better than I can.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you will have a lot of time this summer. Try reading "The Fourth Turning", by Straus & Howe, it will give you some insight not only into where your parents have come from but where you are going....every generation is different from the preceeding. Great story.


Ken said...

Eddie--thanks for the kind words. I'm trying to figure out the whole book thing as we speak.

Conco—you’re right to accuse me of criticizing the corporate life without having lived it. Let’s just say that I intuitively know that I wouldn’t fit in. In addition to the jobs I listed in my essay, I’ve also had several desk jobs, interning for newspapers and non-profits. While the work was good and meaningful, I learned that sitting at a desk just isn’t for me. So sitting at a desk and doing the devil’s work at some corporation’s headquarters is just not an option. (Please excuse the generalizations and jeremiads—the topic piques my ire like little else.) Working for a corporation would give me nothing more than a paycheck and a compromised integrity. But you could argue: Surely, not all corporations are inherently evil. This may be true in the case of alternative energy manufacturers and vaccine makers. But as long as the employer supports the consumer-capitalist complex, I can’t help but think that all their employers are abetting crimes. As for saving up and cashing in later—that doesn’t work for me either. I feel that work should be honorable and that it should give one’s life meaning. Work to me isn’t a means to secure money; rather, work is a means to secure a good life. Here a quote from Wendell Berry singing the same tune: “But is work something that we have a right to escape? And can we escape it without impunity? We are probably the first entire people ever to think so. All the ancient wisdom that has come down to us counsels otherwise. It tells us that work is necessary to us, as much a part of our condition as mortality; that good work is our salvation and our joy; that shoddy or dishonest or self-serving work is our curse and our doom. We have tried to escape the sweat and sorrow promised in Genesis—only to find that, in order to do so, we must forswear love and excellence, health and joy.”

Kevin M—appreciate the kind words.

Heb—Afraid my reading list is packed to the brim. I took out 60 books this summer. I read 19 last summer while working full time so I reasoned I could finish a lot more only partly employed. I will mark your suggestion down for future reading lists, though.

Unknown said...

Dear Ken,
I laughed and cried reading your post... Your thoughts are so familiar and near to my heart. And I'm so moved by the fact that you are Ilgunas, as this is my father's name as well...
I don't know if you ever visit Ilgunas group on fb.
My father has died recently, unexpectedly... The values I adhere to I've got from him. Just yesterday I found his diaries from the concentration camp in Siberia, he was sentenced to 25 years at 17. And - yes you have an apparent kinship... :) (Although I don't believe in genes that much.) He never wanted to settle down and rest, and always appreciated the freedom more than anything else... Just that he was very familiar with his roots and the native land.
Dear Ken, come to Lithuania! I believe you would find some inspiration, and, probably, explanations, here as well. I'd be happy to provide you with shelter and food, and show you around...

Dragonheart said...

Wow... that post was long but very entertaining and at times amusing in a good way.

I don't see living in a van wrong or different then living in a tent. At least you can get to places faster than on foot... and not have to deal with bugs.

Besides, to me, living a 9 to 5 job for the next 40 to 60 years is a one way trip to losing your sanity and maybe, your humanity.

But that's just me saying.

Ken said...

Ugne--please email me ( I'd love to learn more about your father and my family line. (I know so little.) And I've always wanted to visit Lithuania--so I'd most certainly like to one day take you up on your offer. (And yes, I'm familiar with the facebook group. I'm the creator of it! ;)

Dragon--indeed. I should add that I don't see anything wrong with 40-60 years of work so long as we're passionate about what we're doing. Otherwise a huge chunk of our lives are spent in dread.

Bob L. said...

"A little Prince inside."

Not bad. True, but our Heritage is always a part of us, however we put it to use.

Tires: Go to out of the way junk yards. Sometimes you can get car and truck tires for as little as $5, although for your van, $2o would be reasonable. They won't match exactly, but they will have plenty of tread.

Ken said...

Bob-- good advice on the tires. Seems like a worthy investment to make. I take it you're familiar with Exupery?

tentaculistic said...

I know this is almost a year later, but I really feel for you. How hard it is to feel like people you love and care about feel let down by your choices, when you think that they SHOULD be filled to the brim with pride over the amazing feat you are accomplishing. You had $24K debt after 4 years of undergrad -- I had $100K after only 2 years of grad, so Duke could easily be burying you in debt (as a kid, Duke tuition really strained my family when my family member went there). For what it's worth, if you were my kid, I'd be so damn proud of you.

Anonymous said...

Interesting about the fruit for Christmas. I remember my father telling me that his father gave him an orange for Christmas and he kissed his hand in thanks, perhaps it was a Lithuanian tradition. My fathers name was Danielius Ilgunas and he was born in Carfin Scotland in 1910. I