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Sunday, May 29, 2005

 

It's The People, Stupid

I was a popular kid. I had a lot of friends. Sure, they called me “Fatso” in kindergarten, and “weird” in the third grade, but I still went to lots of birthday parties, and got lots of valentines on Valentines Day; such is the nature of friendship in elementary school.

I’m being facetious – I had actual friends, too, some of whom are like sisters to me still. But it was in high school that I found my first real community. I had a friend for every occasion: Rachel with her dark black eye liner for art movies and coffee sessions at the Tastee Diner; Amy, whose family owned 365 Ways to Cook Chicken, for hours spent doubled over in laughter; Anne and Kyla for art projects and excursions to museums; Emily for baking cookies (so we could eat the dough); Andy for easy companionship, hours spent talking about nothing and everything; Liz and Neda for girl bonding – Indigo Girls blasting in Liz’s red car, boy talk over frozen yogurt, and other simple, happy occupations.

I had high hopes for college – I would meet fascinating people, and we’d stay up all night talking. So much for that. I hated college. I felt completely disconnected. I wrote a guest column for the campus paper that summed up how I was feeling:
…My friends from home seem more guarded now and less accessible. I know, people grow apart. But the distance I sense has less to do with what we have in common and more to do with the nature of our interaction. It's as if we're less willing to expose ourselves and more concerned with polish. Image. So that now, when I go home, I feel the same chill I feel here at Penn

Everyone tightly wrapped up in image. A parade of images from the High Rises to Bennett Hall. Self-conscious conversations, where I feel like I'm watching myself interact with people, rather than just connecting with them. I feel like there's this looming block between pretense and meaning and I can't bridge the gap. I can't find the words.

Is this discomfort I feel just a case of me struggling with a Peter Pan complex? Or do others of you feel a chill these days you didn't feel before, a wider distance between our private selves (the voices our journals know) and the images we show the world? Images don't seem to lend themselves to meaningful conversations or laughter that touches your core. Maybe I'm just realizing the beauty of innocence. Or maybe I'm realizing the effort it can take to produce meaning.
It didn’t get any easier after I graduated. I hated my first job, and then I hated the one after that. Clearly there was a widening gap between my expectations of the world, and my experience in it. I expected to live meaningfully. Instead I felt constantly dissatisfied. It wasn’t until I found Washington Improv Theater (WIT) last year that I realized – what I’d been missing was community, something elusive, unpredictable and absolutely essential to my happiness.

Taking classes from WIT has been like food for a hungry person. There is no pretense in improvisation, no self-consciousness – at least, not if you really give yourself over to it. You are just in the moment, reacting honestly, and you and whoever’s on stage with you create something real – and often entertaining – as a result. A simple equation, really – be present, respond – but one that is so often absent from everyday life.

This past “semester,” I was late to my first class. I left work late, and then ran into horrific traffic, and by the time I got to the Children’s Studio School on 13th Street, where classes are held, I was in a terrible mood. I pried open the front door, walked down the hallway with its familiar stench of cleaning solution mixed with urine, and opened the door to the classroom – and was greeted with the warmest, most enthusiastic chorus: “Amanda!!!” It was an awesome moment.

When people accuse D.C. of being a boring city, one without personality or culture or spark, I think, they haven’t found their community yet. Sure, other cities are more alluring – their personalities and advantages are easier to discern, New York with its promise of making it big and disappearing all at once, San Francisco with its hippie heritage and water views. In D.C., there’s no exciting collective image to buy into. But there are people. Smart people, creative people, people from all over the world, and when you find a group of them who are fun to play with, you’ve found everything.

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