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  • Ken Ilgunas

So my mom knows about the van….

She’s known about it for quite some time now. In fact, I told my mom about my idea to live out of a van months before I was even accepted to college. But because the very thought of living in a van—to her—was too preposterous to believe, she shrugged it off as pure “silly talk.”

I admit—I do often share some of my most outlandish ideas with her just to see how unfavorably she’ll respond, but by now (considering that most of those outlandish ideas come true) you’d think that incredulity would no longer be her dominant reaction.

I wasn’t looking forward to telling my mom about the van, as I knew it wouldn’t go over well with her. My mom—like any mom—wants to see her children succeed and there’s just something about her first-born son living in a ’94 Ford Econoline that doesn’t convey an image of success.

I didn’t want to outright lie to her as I have in the past. After hitchhiking from Alaska to New York several summers ago, I deliberately avoided calling home because I didn’t want my eardrums cudgeled with: “Are you crazy!?! You’re going to get yourself killed!!”

Before I left Alaska, I commissioned my friend Josh with the duty of calling my mom if I were to get lost somewhere between Alaska’s Arctic and New York. Anyone who knows my mom knows that she’s a nervous woman to begin with, so if presented with information that her baby boy was missing in the land of the sasquatch and grizzly bears, who knew how she might respond? Luckily Josh never had to do this, but if he did, the phone call could have gone something like this:

Josh: Mrs. I… uh, I have some news.

My mom: (Pause)

Josh: Ken… Well he kinda went hitchhiking and..

My mom: WHAT!!!!?

Josh: He’s missing in the Yukon.

::my mom causes a supernova, there’s a bright light, an explosion, and the world, as we know it, ends::

My mom is incredibly loving and supportive, but she has yet to see anything rational about my adventures. Each time I visit home she suggests I apply for a career with the Niagara Falls Border Patrol, probably envisioning me settled down with a stable job, a family, and a home stocked with symbols of the American Dream—all part of a common misrepresentation of a “dream” that’s always mysteriously devoid of domesticity’s many glaring drawbacks.

When speaking over the phone, I told her, with a deliberate lack of ceremony—in the most relaxed terms—about my current living quarters. This time she seemed far more reluctant to simply cast off my declarations as “silly talk.” After a brief pause she responded just as light-heartedly. But underneath her more pleasant tones, there was an undeniable hint of unease.

Nevertheless, I thought the conversation was a success: I manned-up, I remained honest, and my mother had at least put on an air of acceptance.

Then the emails started coming in. The first one was brief, and reflected her most prominent concerns:

“how do you clean yourself? Where do u park the van?”

In the second, her sincerity and anxiety shone through:

“You worry me & you know it. Please let me give you some money. If you’re so upset about it you can pay me back. Please get an apart. or roommate or something.”

And in the third, she bored a hole through my heart:

“Your life must be so stressful the way you are living. I feel so sorry for you. You go to this fantastic school & you are living like a homeless person. How do u explain your life to new acquaintances? Dont you have any self worth? Why cant u take help from your family. I am always here for you. Love, momxxxooo”

Ouch. Any sensible person can understand where she’s coming from. And believe me—it’s difficult explaining to someone that you want to live in a vehicle while maintaining a semblance of sanity. Nor is it easy expressing that the conventional American lifestyle, to me, is just as confounding and unappealing as living out of a van is to her.

While my parents have, in part, shaped me into the man I am today (which I am everlastingly thankful for), I’ve had to consciously distance myself from some of their generation’s more accepted precepts. What is common sense to them, I find, is oftentimes utter nonsense to me. Whether it’s a parent, a professor, or even the traditions of the age and society in which we live, we must be wary of who we choose as our teachers. As Thoreau says,

“Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wiser man has learned anything of absolute value by living.”

Clearly there isn’t just a generational gap between my mom and I, but a philosophical one as well. And while she and I don’t quite see eye to eye, I think we have reached a common understanding. Now she playfully mocks my “studio apartment” and sends me brownies. In return, I can’t give her an “image of success,” but I can confidently say that I’ve found happiness playing by my own rules—and that should be worth just as much. Shouldn’t it?


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