I return home and find a new appreciation for what the sedentary create.
My father put a new roof on the house he’d moved into a couple of years before. While he’d done this a few other times before it was always when he was younger and on far less challenging houses. He was 50 something years old when he did this last one, and the roof he redid was a contorted prism of sharp angles hovering three stories up. It took him an entire summer to put the new roof on. Sometimes when I come back for a visit we stand outside and he tells me the story of the roof.
But he is not satisfied with the job. On the entire roof there is just one mistake: one slightly crooked shingle. He told me where it is but I can’t find it. I think it’s something that only he can notice.
“I still sometimes look at that shingle and it bothers me,” he said. “I think of what it would take to go up there and replace it and sometimes I almost do it.”
Getting back on that roof to fix the shingle would be a ridiculous thing to do. It’s functionally perfect as it is, it doesn’t leak. The only problem is that it is the sole blemish of an otherwise perfect project. It stands out in my father’s mind alone.
But the fact that this bothers him shows the passion that he put into the project and the pride he takes out of it. He won’t admit it, he acts as if everything he does is run of the mill, no better than what anyone else does, but it seems clear that everyday that he comes home from work he looks at that roof and says, “I did that.”
It’s only a roof, but it represents much more than that. It represents effort, perseverance, and precision: the physical output of the time of someone’s life. Seemingly mundane parts of the landscape are all too often another person’s masterpiece, acknowledged by nobody but the doer.
I look around my parents’ house and I see a gallery of masterpieces — I’m starting to notice what they’ve done. They came from very little and just worked hard and smart. These two points cannot be separated: hard work produces little if not intelligently directed.
When I was a kid my father did somewhat menial labor. The guy made boxes for film at Kodak or something, and later on he drove a fork lift. Eventually, he was offered an apprenticeship in sheet metal. It would essentially mean going back to school for some years — something that he hadn’t done since dropping out of high school as a teenager.
I was old enough to remember him making the decision. At the time, it wasn’t the clear shot path that it now seems. He was comfortable in his work, we were comfortable enough as a family. We didn’t need him to change jobs, and the amount of additional effort that he would need to put into doing so was of debatable worth. He was looking at keeping on the same level, easy path or diverging off on an arduous inclined slope that lead to places unknown. He diverged, and it was a choice that made everything else possible.
A couple of years or so after he began the apprenticeship Kodak began its first major waves of layoffs. By the time he was a certified sheet metal technician the corporation was liquidating its manufacturing presence in the USA. A few years later he would be laid off as well.
I was in high school when he got the notice that his services would no longer be needed at the place he worked for 20 years. Everybody he worked with and a relatively large portion of the working class of Rochester were honored with the same distinction. The toll was heavy but he didn’t seem very worried. He had a wife and two kids to support, but he didn’t seem fearful of what the future would bring. My sister and I were sat down at the dinner table one Sunday afternoon and, family meeting style, were formally given the news.
“What are you going to do now?” I remember asking him.
“Get another job,” he answered simply.
He took a 7 day break where he caught up on some repairs around the house and then began applying to temp agencies. The thought of my dad going to job interviews seemed strange. He had been employed every day of my life up until then. It didn’t take him long to find a few stints here and there, and finally he began as a temp at the University of Rochester. There he impressed his supervisor and was quickly made permanent. When his boss retired he took his place running the sheet metal shop.
My parents soon left the small ranch house in the boondocks that I grew up in and moved into a nice, newer, 2 story house in the eastern suburbs of Rochester. My father exchanged his rickety pickup trucks for Asian cars, has a long tree-lined driveway, and far too much land to bother mowing all of. There is a trampoline in the backyard, a swimming pool, and what amounts to a complete playground for their 8 year old adopted Chinese daughter. Whenever I go there I say to myself, “Man, these people made it.”
When I was a teenager I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to stay in one place, indenture themselves to an employer, live as a slave to the banks, give away their lives to their children. I looked out at how the adults around me were living and said no way. I mistook them for being miserable, for being trapped in lives that they despised, for not tasting the sweet nectar this world giveth to those inspired enough to throw off their shackles and open their mouths wide.
What I didn’t understand was that it was precisely what I took to be shackles which provided them with what they valued most. Their homes, families, jobs was what was important. It was what gave them a feeling of pride and accomplishment. It was what provided them with the groundwork to advance and improve. It was their projects.
They stay in one place and build a life. What they construct are the physical manifestations of their time spent. Those houses, cars, and well cropped lawns are essentially monuments built to commemorate the builders, for the appreciation of no one but the ones laying down the bricks. We may call these people sedentary but that doesn’t mean they’re static. Everybody is going somewhere, progressing through something, obtaining a little more each day. Within the walls of each house are dreams, accomplishments, struggles, acquisition, progress.
Each time you leave a place you have to start all over again. The sedentary are smart enough to avoid this perpetual hassle.
It took me many years before I could see that the trappings of the sedentary life were not traps at all. It took me a long time before I realized that the people who stay put generally don’t feel stuck, that they’re doing what they want to do, that they would’t rather be like me and travel the world.
Sure, many people who don’t say they want to become unstuck and travel the world, that they wish they could be a perpetual tourist, that I’m oh so lucky. But the fact here is that most all travelers — even those who find a way to continuously make enough money to live on the road — will return home. Most of those expats who set up lives in tropical lands don’t last. A couple of years out and they’re heading back to where they came from, disillusioned and a little more broke.
The travel writing industry — people like me — make our living selling the dream. We tell people that life is like a book and those who don’t travel only read a single page. We present travel as an escape, as something better, more interesting, more exciting. For us, it really is. I am confident that there is not a traveler out there who doesn’t think his/ her lifestyle is tops, and why shouldn’t they: who would be stupid enough to live in an intentionally inferior way? Though we are blinded by the reflection of ourselves and the lifestyle we chose to lead, and often can’t see beyond the glare. We can’t see the integral essence of the world we left behind.
Perhaps the true value of life comes from living with the same people everyday, year after year; of watching the people around you grow and develop; of sharing a common history of joys, passions, anger, and sorrows; of watching life unfold across generations. The lifelong traveler doesn’t have these experiences, and are not granted the insights they produce. The lifelong traveler is a little deranged. Those of us who write about the lifestyle are peddling insanity, and when the psychologically well adjusted try it they tend to eventually say, “Man, this is nuts, I’m going home.”
I look upon my parents’ house and realize that it’s a shrine to their accomplishments, the time that they spent working for something, the intelligent moves they’ve made. Everyday my parents add a little more to the mountain of life they’ve been building over the past 36 years. They can walk through their yard and see the manifestation of their time all around them, the substance for pure and well-deserved pride. Travel for them would first be a punishment, then the most vile sort of purgatory.
For the first time I’ve seen the walls of a home as not resembling a cage. Though I still have no intention of stepping within them — there is still a wisdom of the traveling life — I can appreciate what the people who do spend their lives creating.
It’s the sedentary people of the world that the traveler is generally interested in. We look through their windows and walk through their doors to see another world that delights, intrigues, or enlightens us. It’s the people who carry on their culture’s traditions, who build up city walls and live within them who provide us with the substance that makes travel valuable. We travelers are parasites, our experiential sustenance is sucked from the lives of those who stay put.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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