Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lessons in Independence

Being independent seems to be a really important thing for a lot of people. Independence is a hallmark of your success and a measure of your worth. It marks your metamorphosis from a helpless child into a capable adult.

I’ve always considered myself a pretty pathetically dependent person. I can’t drive. I’ve never had a job. I can’t cook much besides scrambled eggs, toast, and things with directions on the package. My street smarts are abysmal. I don’t know how to cash a check, I suck at talking on the phone, and every time I’m in a situation where I have to tip someone I panic and ask my friends to double check my reasoning ‘cause I always forget the proper percentage. Pretty much the only things I can do all by myself are wash laundry and get straight As.

That I basically need someone to hold my hand in order to function like a capable adult used to be a major source of shame for me. Then at some point in my life I accepted it. Now, I usually just hope that if smile apologetically and ask my stupid questions politely enough, the world will forgive my uselessness.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been trying to take every opportunity to learn how to be more independent. Which brings me to these past three days.

I spend a good chunk of my life here at college with my roommates. We get along really well, and so in addition to living with them, I usually also eat, do schoolwork, and hang out with them. But these past few days, all three of them have been busy, out with other people and doing other things.

Now, that in itself isn’t a problem. It’s not like I begrudge people the time that they don’t spend with me. And normally, I could find other people to hang out with. But right now I have a BIG HUGE CULMINATION OF ENTIRE YEAR OH MY GOD DUE SOON paper that I’ve needed to spend every spare moment working on, and inviting people over to say “hey, nice to see you, so I’m basically going to drown you out with music and work on my paper now” seemed a little silly. And so I’ve spent more time than usual alone, doing my own thing.

Okay, I thought, when it became evident that this was how things were gonna be for a little while. I can handle doing my own thing. All I’m doing is my work anyway. It’s not like I’m singlehandedly holding down a fort.

And things did largely have gone fine. Aside from random spells of talking to myself, being alone doesn’t bother me much. The only problem arose at dinnertimes. Usually, I go to dinner when my roommates do, and we go to whatever dining hall the general consensus agrees upon. Without their guidance, I was a bit unsure of what to do with myself. Not because I don’t know how to get food on my own. I can do that. It was just that without a group of people with whom to coordinate a time and a place, there were suddenly too many times and places to choose from. I could go eat anywhere, at any time I wanted? Well goodness! I would kind of put off the decision until I just ended up having cereal or grabbing something to eat in the room.

I started this morning with a mission. Today—no matter what—I was going to get my hair cut. My hair had not been cut since the beginning of January, and for the past three weeks, its propensity to get everywhere had become almost unbearably annoying. I had been putting off going to the Hair Cuttery in the mall out of some vague hope that someone would want to come get their hair cut with me. But no more of that—I was going to be an independent woman and go by myself!

I had never actually walked to the mall next to college by myself before. I can’t think of a less dangerous trip—once you get off campus, you pass an old folks’ home and cut through a Sheraton, and then you’re there. But I generally use the buddy system whenever possible. You never know when you might randomly trip and break your leg and need a buddy.

Turns out, I didn’t have to walk by myself anyways. One of my roommates was also headed to the mall to meet some friends. We went out together and wandered in some shops for a bit, until eventually she went to go find her friends and I went to go finally free myself from that scraggly oppression.

I went into the Hair Cuttery. It was busy and crowded, and I could barely hear the woman at the register when she asked if I had a client card. Nonetheless, I managed to convey my wishes.

A woman cut my hair. She was nice. She made some small talk. I made a bit of small talk back, but small talk with strangers is not my strength. She seemed to understand that and eventually said nothing, except the occasional “look down more.”

It was a beautiful thing when I raised my head to the mirror and saw myself looking the way I like to look. And when she lifted my bangs away from my forehead, snipped them, and let them fall back—and they didn’t poke my eyeballs—that was a glorious moment, my friends, a glorious moment.

I paid for my haircut—even tipped appropriately with minimal panic—and off I went. Mission accomplished.

I walked away from the Hair Cuttery on a cloud of relieved euphoria. My excess hair was gone and it felt awesome. I had been looking forward to this moment for ages. How wonderful it was, to have just gone and done this because it was what I needed to do!

As I was about to leave the mall, I considered stopping at Coldstone. I had been planning to grab some ice cream after my haircut. But I checked the time. It was already past four thirty. If I had ice cream now, it would ruin dinner.

No matter. I’d just come back over for ice cream some other day. Whenever I felt like it. On a whim. I could do those sorts of things, being an independent woman fully capable of walking a mile and a half.

And so I went out of the mall, across the skywalk, through the Sheraton, past the old folks’ home, across campus, and into the dorms. I unlocked my door, went inside—and was greeted by empty silence.

And then it struck me. One of my roommates was organizing some German beer night. Another was out in Baltimore with her friend from home. The other was back at the mall. There was nobody here to have dinner with. I could text around to other friends see if anyone wanted to eat, but that was always kind of stressful. I could just show up at the dining hall and hope to see someone to sit with there, but then there was the possibility of eating alone in a corner.

The long and short of it was… I should have gotten that ice cream.

For about half an hour, I worked on my paper and wallowed in my loss.

And then I realized something. Who was stopping me from going back to the mall right then and getting Coldstone? Absolutely nobody. That’s who.

And so I made up my mind. I was going to have ice cream for dinner. Because why the hell not? Was it a silly idea to walk all the way back to the mall for just for ice cream? Maybe according to other standards—but if I thought it was an excellent idea (and I did), why should I not do it? I had no one to answer to but myself. I was free. I was doing my own thing. I was… independent.

I went right back out the door, across the campus, past the old folks’ home, through the Sheraton, across the skywalk, and into the mall.

The line for Coldstone went out the door. That was a little dismaying.

It would be silly to wait in such a long line just for ice cream, said the part of that was still judging things by everyone else’s standards. You should just go get food somewhere else.

No way! countered the part of me that had realized that nobody’s standards but my own mattered for the moment. You want ice cream. Go get ice cream. You made a special trip for it, didn’t you?

So I got in the line. And when I got to the front, the part of me that was doing whatever the hell it wanted was so pleased with itself that I decided to order the medium-sized cup of ice cream, instead of the small one I’d usually get. It was going to be my dinner, after all.

Well, if you’ve ever been to Coldstone, you know that even smallest cup contains an absurd amount of ice cream. I walked out of that shop (and out of the mall, across the skywalk, through the Sheraton, past the old folks’ home, and across campus) with a scoop of ice cream about the size of both of my fists (so, according to popular belief, twice the size of my heart.)

Now, if I were a character in a wacky sitcom, I would get my karmic retribution for such a stupid decision by feeling like crap from eating so much ice cream. Then I would learn some silly lesson about how being independent is great, but you have to not be an idiot and enjoy your independence by calling up some friends to enjoy a nutritious meal at the dining hall.

If you thought that that was how this story was going to end, you have not experienced my relationship with ice cream. No, I have no regrets. I happily ate that entire scoop, even if took me so long to do it that the last fourth turned to liquid.

For those of you disappointed with the lack of karmic retribution and schadenfreude, I did have painfully cold fingers after carrying the ice cream back to campus in 50 degree weather. And while I was walking, I had time to think about what it meant to have gone out and done this alone. This is what I realized:

Complete freedom to do whatever I want is boring. It’s so… easy. It’s so predictable. I wanted ice cream. So I got it. Cool. So what?

When your plans depend on other people, things aren’t so simple. You have to scheme and compromise, consider and choose. Maybe you don’t get exactly what you want, but you always get something, and you never know exactly what the something will be. That’s exciting.

I think that’s why I tend to agree to try just about any activity—so long as it’s not, you know, illegal or anything—even if I don’t particularly want to. Because I want to do things that I don’t really want to do, you know? You try new things that way. Sometimes you don’t end up liking hem. But sometimes you really do. And it gives more variety to your life than if you’re just constantly only doing things you personally chose to do.

I realized—I want to learn to drive not because I want to be able to take myself wherever I want, but so I can road trip with my friends and take my siblings out on adventures. I want to learn how to cook not so I can eat whatever I want all the time, but so I can make new foods and innovate with our hilariously limited ingredient supply. I want to learn how to function in society not so I can go off by myself all the time, but so my friends and I can pool our skills and together take on the world.

Basically, I want the trademarks of independence so I can contribute—so I can co-depend, so that I can depend on people but people can depend on me in return. I don’t like going off and doing my own thing. I like doing other people’s thing and then doing my thing with them.

And now I know that when left to my own devices, I come up with such great plans as “special ice cream trip!” Maybe it’s a good thing I never had a job or a car. There’s a Dairy Queen between my old high school and my house.

Here’s to being an independent woman.

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