Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Carlisle, culture shock and bursting bubbles

How far do you have to go to get outside your own bubble, and how much does that have to do with physical distance? For someone who lives in a city, is going to another country necessary? Or could it be that simply getting out into “the country” is just as helpful in broadening one’s experiences?

Last week, I had the chance to attend an event with Charles Murray, author (most recently) of the best-selling Coming Apart, fellow AEIer, and all-around brilliant guy. The topic of discussion at the event, which was attended by young folks in the first few years in the job market, was career and life stuff. Heavy.

One of Charles’ central recommendations was that you should travel while you’re young—to learn about different cultures and ways of life. Buy a one-way ticket to somewhere you’ve never been and try to make your own way for a year or two. Take time off from college to do so, or if you’ve already graduated, don’t go right into the job market.

The rationale makes sense: in order to make better career decisions, it helps to understand who you are and what you like before jumping into something that makes you less than super-satisfied. Indeed, Charles spent several years in the Peace Corps in Thailand after college before returning to the states to get his Ph.D. in political science and embark on his career as a well-known social scientist and author.  And also indeed, his thesis in Coming Apart is that the American upper class is becoming ever more insulated from experiences outside their own little bubble.

Well, if you read my last post (or if you’ve ever met me), you’ll know I am not an adventurer.  I value safety and security over risk. When I imagine myself in Charles’ life in Thailand, I can only think that I would be incredibly unhappy.  Not just unhappy, but I would be forever concerned that I would be doing great damage to my nascent career. I look at enough resumes to know that “gap years” are not appreciated, no matter the reason. Maybe this is unfortunate, but it is the truth.

So when Charles reached the end of his remarks, I raised my hand. The gist of what I asked was that everyone in that room had likely been on “the treadmill” in pursuit of success our entire lives, so how could we convince potential employers that getting off the treadmill was the right decision? Charles said that we should stop thinking about what others thought and instead chase the adventures that would add to our character and self-awareness.

That wasn’t enough for me. I proceeded, perhaps a bit more timidly. “What if you’re not a risk-taker?”
How would I know for sure if I didn’t try?, he asked. Good question. The only thing I could do is project myself into potential overseas adventures, and I instinctively knew that such a life would not be for me. So I wasn’t really interested in adventure?. he wondered.

I paused and felt a wave of embarrassment. “Not really.”

This elicited some laughs from those around me, but I was serious. I like being a three-hour train ride from my family, I hate moving, and darn it, I love indoor plumbing. So why did my words suddenly seem so blasphemous, even to me?

Charles did his best to be helpful—perhaps I could move to another city? Well, after pursuing undergraduate and graduate political science degrees (quite happily, I might add), DC is the ideal place to be, at least at this time in my life.  When the event was done, I walked out of the room pretty feeling low.

Fortunately, I was on my way out of town and off to Carlisle, Pennsylvania—or, more exactly, to the Carlisle Fairgrounds for the Spring Carlisle swap meet.

Swap meet? Swap meet. This:

For those not in the know, swap meet means “sea of stuff for sale,” and in Carlisle’s case, it is largely automotive-related. However, there are plenty of sights to take in that range far from the car realm:

(Biggest regret of the day: I did not get a picture of the bulldog getting pushed around in a stroller. Cutest. Thing. Ever.)

Well, you know how they say it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt? They might as well say it’s all fun and games until someone finds something large and bulky to buy. And as it happened, my father located the object of his affection in row number one:

The front end of a 1971 Thunderbird. My father owns a 1970 T-Bird, which has been in the family since new. So why the interest in the ’71 front clip? Without getting too much into the weeds, there are no reproduction parts being made for this vintage, so if something ever happened to the delicate grille of his own car, he’d have a suitable replacement.  In all of his years of combing swap meets all over the Northeast, he’d only seen one grille before—and it cost $300. This front end came with a much more respectable price tag of $50 (my father, ever the king of haggling, got it down to $40).

Major score, right? Perhaps so, until you realize that we are at the bottom of a big hill and our car is at the top of said hill. A two-door 1971 Thunderbird weighs about 4300 pounds total, so you can guess that this front clip was not exactly light. Fortunately, the two guys who sold it to my father lent us a handtruck to get it up the hill.  Even then, the trip was arduous, to say the least, but we could muster a smile once we got it to the top.

And yes, it did fit in the back of the station wagon—albeit just barely.

So what does all of this have to do with anything? Going to Carlisle and places like it are a good reminder of what much of this country is actually like. When you look around, there is nary a smartphone, Starbucks cup, or ironic t-shirt to be found (I did see some “Duck Dynasty” t-shirts, but they were entirely sincere). Those who come to Carlisle swap meets are largely working-class, and many are quite religious (indeed, the swap meet weekend includes a non-denominational service on Sunday morning).

It’s a different world from DC, to say the least. It may be in the same country, but the beliefs of Americans in DC and Americans who come to Carlisle seem worlds apart.  To go to Carlisle, even for one day, is a reality check—an important reminder that this is truly a land of contrasts, and we can never stop learning from it.  It’s not often that I am attaching a front clip to a handtruck, taking great pains to ensure that it will not get damaged or fall off in the midst of transport, while avoiding cuts from jagged and rusty metal edges.

And I couldn’t help but think about Charles’ talk from the previous week while I was doing this. A day at the swap meet might not be exotic, but you can’t argue that it’s, well, different from the normal DC woman’s day. Could such experiences expand my own horizons, make me a more well-rounded and, ultimately, happy person? I don’t know, but I’d like to think so. I daresay that perhaps there is too much emphasis on the potential adventures and learning opportunities far from home, at the expense of those right under our noses.