July 07, 2010

Meaning Less

Yes, that’s right, I am about to commit the greatest sin modern American consumer culture knows: I am moving to Los Angeles without a car. My car is now officially sold. My buyer, a close friend, brought a down payment of just over half the price this afternoon. We’ll share the car until I move and I’ll sign the title when she makes the final payment next month. It will be the first time I am officially car-less since I turned sixteen. In Car Capital USA, to boot.

I don’t think it really sunk in before. I was looking at rentals in the San Gabriel Valley with the belief that if it didn’t work out, I could just pick up and move at the end of the semester. But how precisely am I going to do that? Move eighteen boxes of books on my bicycle, one at a time? Unlikely. Now I realize, if I’m going to move, I had best just move and be done with it. My craigslist hunting patterns have changed as a result.

It seems my best bet will be to find a two-bedroom within the seven-city range I have set myself. Small two-bedroom homes are far more plentiful than single accommodations in this suburban area, and usually comparably priced to the few newer one-bedroom apartments. I can afford it for up to a semester on my own if need be, though I’ll start looking for a roommate immediately. But once there, I could put down roots.

I look forward to that with absurd joy. No one should enjoy moving, but I do. For me settling into a new space is a design exercise, an exciting new puzzle. Bookshelves and futons dance in my head. Doing it all on a shoestring just adds to the challenge.

I take pride in my surroundings, as well. I see them as a reflection of myself, and one far more telling than what I wear or how I do my hair or the music I listen to. It’s how I judge other people, by the titles of the books on their shelves, the arrangement of their furniture, and the politeness of their pets. There are hidden messages there which can tell you much about a person.

We all judge each other. I don’t necessarily mean that in the derogatory sense of the word. Some people say you can tell everything you need to know about a woman by her shoes, which has always struck me as patently ridiculous. But then, I can tell almost everything I need to know about someone by their dog, so perhaps it’s not so outlandish. The Venerable Hyun Gok, a Korean nun I met at the University of the West during my visit this spring, judged I was a very independent person after apparently examining my hands.

Communication happens on more than just a verbal level, the level of words whether spoken or written. It also encompasses more even than body language, facial expressions, or hand gestures. Everything we make has a message. Information is Beautiful has a great infographic about the meanings of colors among different cultures. The array is staggering. Even supposedly ‘functional’ objects convey meaning. If one sees a set of stairs, one assumes they are for climbing, that they lead somewhere. Just not in the house Sarah Winchester built. So we take meaning from clothing and possessions and personal taste and buildings and almost anything at all, including nothing.

Naturally, I took meaning from my car. It’s a little blue Hyundai Accent hatchback with a spoiler on the back. I bought it new when I was nineteen years old. It’s cheap, yes, and not very powerful, but it can hold a truly impressive amount of stuff in the back for such a little car. And I like the color. And, yes, I even like the spoiler, although it’s the last kind of car that would need one. It's existence was added to the conglomerate of my identity. And I’ll be leaving it behind.

What does that mean for me? Absolutely nothing.

Meaning is assigned. We give things meaning. They don’t actually have meaning of their own. So much in our lives goes entirely unnoticed, though we see it and hear it, our attention skips right past because it doesn’t mean anything to us. Just like until this afternoon, the reality that I won’t have a car in California didn’t mean anything to me because I still had a car. Then things changed.

And what does not having a car in California mean? Absolutely nothing, but it does have some functional repercussions. This cause will have many effects. If I can stop pondering what it means (that I’m eco-friendly, or poor, or just really foolish) for a moment, I might actually be able to figure out what it does. Knowing that is the basis of wisdom, the place from which good decisions can be made.

Sometimes meaning less means doing more.

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