Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Clueless in Seattle

I am in Seattle this entire September. It is not even Christmas break or April Fools’ Day. The last time I was here this long was in 2010, right before I was moving to Virginia to start a PhD. This time however, I did not take a flight to Seattle. I drove, all the way from Nebraska. Actually I did not drive directly to Seattle either. I took a rather circuitous route. I first went south, to Houston. Then I went north, to Chicago. Then I drove east, to Washington DC. From there, I drove west, to Seattle. I still think that I am reasonably sane. I just wanted to drive all four directions. Alone, in my car. And I did that. Three weeks and 8,000 miles later, I reached Seattle. I met many friends on my way, 42 to be exact. I made 10 new friends as well. For years, I have seen people do cross-country road trips, creating their trajectories using Google maps, and posting them on Facebook. Someone once did a smiley trip, driving from Boston, dipping down to Texas, and going up to Seattle, drawing a smiley on the US map. Then someone drove four corners, from Maine to Florida, to southern California and Seattle. There is no dearth of crazy people. I think I have finally enrolled my name in that list too. It takes you 8,000 miles to drive from Washington DC to India, via Europe. That is how far I went.

I had a lot of realizations in this road trip. It is only natural, when you are on your own, sitting for hours inside a car, doing nothing but driving. The music keeps you distracted initially, and so do the landscapes. But there is only so much music you can hear and so much scenery you can see. When you have had your fill, you go back to thinking. About life, about people, about the sky and the ground, and everything in between. About the past and the future, and everything in between as well. So I thought about a lot of things. And realized that I have nothing much to show in life. Certainly not if I held out my social checklist and pen, trying to check boxes.

Of all the 42 odd friends I met, I found a pattern. The people who were graduate students, doing their PhD four years ago now definitely have a well-paying job and a wife, a car, if not a home. And the people who had a job and a wife and an apartment then now have a house, a few kids and a pregnant wife, a BMW or an SUV, and a permanent residence in the US. The F1s have moved to H1Bs, the H1Bs have changed to green cards. The sedans have become SUVs. The rented apartments have become self-owned houses. The singles are all parents now, single or not. People have progressed, and have much to show from this checklist of achievements. They have run marathons, taken the ice bucket challenge, climbed Mount Rainier, created their own photography website, and have at least visited Alaska, if not South America. And all I have to show is a PhD. An effing PhD on a topic no one cares about; not enough to help me get a faculty position anyway.

I know that I had never signed up for a traditional life by any standard. Predictability bored me. When people went one way, I wanted to go another way. In the mid-twenties, when my friends were preparing to get married, I was preparing to move to the US. Later when more friends were getting married, I was busy changing jobs, running analyses for my PhD, or traveling. When people were raising babies, I was taking salsa classes, performing in plays, and dancing on stage. And now that those friends are about to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary, I am pretty much still where I started from. And this makes me realize that I have nothing much to show in life, except for hundreds of travel magnets and hundreds of friends I have collected over the years.

Do I regret it? No. Is it freaking me out? Maybe a little bit. Given a choice, would I live their lives? I don’t think so. For better or for worse, my journey has been my own, and I own it. But once in a while, I pause and wonder, is this what I wanted? Of course the constant Facebook updates of people living wonderful lives and eating gourmet food has a lot to do with this. At 33, I didn’t think that I would have no job stability, no stable source of income, no savings, no one to call a spouse or a partner or a sugar daddy, and would be so lost and clueless about where I am headed. I didn’t know that I would be living my life in one year contracts, changing jobs and going to new places every year. Who would I be, given a choice? Well, I would be a professor in Seattle, working at UW or Seattle U. Or I would be working for the UN, the WHO, or the World Bank. I would like to live in a little condo overlooking the bay, and Mount Rainier, sharing my life and living space with Mr. Pi (a mathematician and a fictional character in my head). Mr. Pi is also a professor in rocket sciences, a field that not many of us understand. I write academic papers in the day and fictional stories at night. We go hiking, biking, and sometimes indulge in late night desserts at Dilettante, or take a stroll by the Alki beach, marveling at the Seattle skyline.

But I don’t see myself anywhere close to these fictional dreams. Instead, there has been a little bit of a situation. You see, my life has been caught up in an intricate web of uncertainties. I thought that as people grow older, they become more stable, accomplished, and sure of themselves. But now I know that sometimes, people get lost, unable to find their way out. They see their friends zoom by them, and wonder what they could have done differently in life. So now, I suddenly find myself a little lost, with my close friends telling me, "I told you so." Not too long ago, when I was finishing my PhD, I thought that I would next be a professor at an American university. But none of that happened. I moved to Nebraska, spending the worst one year of my life in America. Three days ago, I sold my car, something that I was very deeply attached to. Tomorrow, I will complete my eight years of stay in the US. And in less than one month, I will start the next chapter of my life, in a new country, in fact, a new continent. 

I am moving to Europe.