I am writing this blog entry from my new apartment. Of course it’s not actually anywhere close to new—one of the great things about Philadelphia is the abundance of historical buildings, and the sign outside the building tells me that famed zoologist and paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope lived here beginning in 1876 (well, I think he was in the two outwardly-identical townhouses next door, but close enough). I’m taking it as a good omen for my career, because he published 1400 papers in his fairly short lifetime. Just waiting for the mojo to start working. But first I get to write a blog. There is nothing I could reasonably talk about this week except moving, because it ate my life and made me cry, as it has pretty much every time I’ve done it. Moving has been an enormous part of my post-PhD experience, as I know it has for lots of other people. I’ve moved (from house to house if not city to city) at least every year since I graduated, many years twice, and I have hated, loathed every single packing, every disassembling of my futon, and every instance of sorting through box after box for the one thing I need when I get there.
Luckily this move was only 5 blocks, and I had help from some great people here. For example, my department chair was kind enough to teach both my classes for me because I had to move on a teaching day (I am so grateful). But I maintain that moving, with whatever level of help, is an enormous challenge. The BBC says it’s not actually the second most stressful thing in life, but it does take over your life in a way that few other things do. After all, how can you do math when all of your notes and books are in boxes and you really, truly have no horizontal surfaces larger than a coffee cup to spread out on? How can you teach when you can’t find anything but your sweaty moving clothes?
This time, my answer to minimizing part of this stress has been to let the move touch as little calendar time as possible. I waited until the last days before to pack up (this could be called procrastination, but I call it a method), and I unpacked everything absolutely as soon as I could. No saving boxes for later, no living out of a suitcase or sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The first priority except teaching was to get the house put away. I started packing on Friday night and worked all weekend (with a couple breaks to watch the last episodes of Twin Peaks). I moved Tuesday and had all my furniture put together before I went to bed, all the boxes empty by Thursday evening. I was exhausted, however, and I have to say that, first priority or not, the teaching suffered anyway because I couldn’t get any sleep in my new (non-air-conditioned) place with no curtains; I was a total zombie teaching my first class on Wednesday. So I don’t know if this blitz method is the best idea after all. Maybe I should have just camped in my office for a week, coming home just to work on the house over the long weekend. At least it’s over now, regardless of best practices.
One of the things that is different about moving now than when I was younger is that I now have to hire professionals. When I was more settled, in grad school, I had no money but plenty of connections in the community and there were people who were crazy enough to help me move. My parents and my sister would come from Wyoming with a pickup truck. I was into this DIY method and never thought I would hire movers. However, it turns out that you have to know someone pretty well—often more than a year–or pay them a lot to get them to haul your mattress up the stairs. My movers this time were pretty rough, and pretty slow, and so very expensive. Ah, the many ways I miss my folks, free labor being one. The people who were moving into my last apartment as I was moving out were three very nice girls from Long Island, each with a parent helping out for the day. They said, “Oh, you have movers, how nice!” and I couldn’t believe how much I hoped they appreciated their parents. Weird feeling.
In the last few years, I have moved many times because I was changing jobs, with auxiliary moves because there was some problem with my apartment, or to move back in with my parents for a couple months after graduating. This time was different; the reason that I was moving this time is very sad and makes all my complaints really trivial. I feel that I can’t talk about this move without telling you about my dear friend Margarita Metallinou, who was my roommate until her untimely death in early July. She was a post-doctoral scholar in the Biology department at Villanova, a passionate herpetologist and evolutionary biologist, as well as an incredibly lively, intelligent, and beautiful person. She was killed in an accident while doing field work in Zambia. It was shocking, terrible, senseless, and her friends and family are still mourning her loss deeply. I won’t say too much about her here, because it’s still hard to write about and maybe too personal for a blog like this, but I do want to say a one thing about our friendship that might be relevant for other people in early career transitions, making a move to a whole new institution instead of just a new apartment.
Margarita and I met at new faculty orientation at Villanova. I love new faculty orientations desperately, not for any content reason but because that is where I have met almost all non-math friends I have made since I got my PhD. I never would have guessed that it would be so hard to meet new people when I moved to different cities, but I have honestly made only a couple non-academic friends since grad school, and not for lack of leaving the house. It seems that a lot of non-academic people around my age are fairly settled and already have as many friends as they need. Villanova was my third new faculty orientation and I had figured out that these were my people, so I was really paying attention. Margarita and I became friends for many reasons, including that I could tell very quickly that I wanted her for a friend, because she was obviously an extraordinary person. But what gave us an opportunity to actually form that friendship is that we both lived in Center City Philadelphia and took the train to Villanova every day. In my experience, proximity is everything in making friends in a new place. Villanova has a beautiful campus, in an idyllic, expensive suburban community, so very few people who work there (well, few assistant professors or postdocs at least) actually live very close. That has made it hard to meet up with most people for drinks after work or general friend-making hang outs. It was really lucky that Margarita and I lived about 4 blocks apart, so we got to see each other a lot away from work. We had so many great times that we eventually decided to get a place together this spring.
So yes, I had actually just moved a few months ago, in May. Ugh, I hate to even think about it, so back to my current move: since I couldn’t afford that larger place alone, I had to find a new place to live very quickly and with many other things going on. By moving day I had no memory of the apartment I had seen for 10 minutes and then put a deposit on the month before. Like some other times I have chosen an apartment, I experienced renter’s remorse and anxiety after I paid the deposit. This time it was more extreme than ever before–it seemed like I must have made the wrong choice, and it seemed like a really big deal. But I think that my anxiety was probably about the bigger questions and difficulties in life, and just found expression in my choice of apartment, exactly because it was a choice. I was supposed to have control over that part, and everything felt wrong, so it must have been because I had chosen wrong. I had to remind myself many times that there was not any one right choice, and that I have lived in many far from perfect places and come to love them. Many things were a total surprise when I got here. The freezer was pretty well frosted over (who knew that there still exist freezers that get frosty), but most things worked okay, and after a lot of work unpacking and sorting it is actually looking like a great place. Not perfect, but great.
This move was sad, and frustrating, and very unpleasant, but it was over fast and I’m now really happy in my new place. I just hung a 9 foot blackboard on my bedroom wall. Alone. And I feel like a superhero. With a blackboard like that, can 1400 papers be far behind?