Monday, August 25, 2014


This year's "Back to School" season is filled with mixed emotions for me.  My eighteen year old nephew is off to college.  He's the only child of his generation in our branch of the family, so we are all feeling this moment of transition keenly.

Also, in the last year I have returned to the neighborhood of my childhood, and experienced freshly life in a community infused with college students.  So today I include reflections from both.

A Drabble (100 Word Story) - Written for Laurence Simon's Weekly Challenge to the prompt "Load"

By Judith Cullen
(c) 2014

Tomorrow he starts college.  No more using all his Mom’s blankets, cushions and chairs to build forts.  No more “Mr Baloony” stories, with three prompts from the young master himself. 

He bequeathed me his Disneyland Play Set – figures, slides, trains, things that spin.  A tiny drawer contains the surviving figures.  Not all of them made it through the many years of joy. Princesses lost their heads, as they often do.  The flying elephant ride is missing one car. As my wee boy departs for halls of higher learning I am emotionally and functionally one Dumbo shy of a full load.

An Essay

LIFE 101 – Living Off Campus
By Judith Cullen
(c) 2014

I wasn’t always this age.  I was young once. I even used to be a college student.  I remember the first home I had that was not under my parent’s, or anyone else’s, supervision.  I have fond recollections of mismatched glassware, decorating with batik cotton and Christmas tree lights.  I remember the freedom of playing whatever music I wanted, eating exotic meals of my own creation, and having friends over at all hours.  Up until recently I still enjoyed the delights of 2 am bubble baths and watching movies when I couldn’t sleep. I still have a cut glass jelly jar that is my guilty pleasures wine glass, which I have had for years. So I understand the heady independence of being out on your own for the first time and crafting your very own first nest.  It is TOTALLY great!

If you choose to live off campus, your focus is primarily on the liberations enumerated above, and sharing them with your housemates. What you don’t think on is that now you are part of a greater community – you are now a “neighbor.”  One of the things not on your standard college curriculum, in the life skills department, is how to be a good neighbor.  It’s not generally something discussed around the kitchen table either.  We take it for granted that it is learned by example, but forget that a lot of both implicit and explicit lessons are being learned as kids grow up.  It can be hard and confusing to consciously sort them and recognize them for what they are.  When we are young, we quickly lose patience with the Polonius’ of the world who stop us in our tracks and start ticking off the principles for living just as we are about to embark on that grand adventure.

Recently I moved back into a neighborhood within three blocks of a University campus, where college kids have been renting houses for decades.  I was struck by 1. How little many of our kids know about being “good neighbors,” and 2. My encroaching “old-fogie-ness.”  With those two caveats firmly in place, allow me to share these thoughts:

Lesson 1 – Understand what you have moved into.  People have lived in these homes for decades.  They have lived, loved, raised children, lost.  You come into people’s lives for a brief time, and then head off to the rest of your own.  You don’t know who lives behind those doors and windows: the elderly, the home-bound, people with infants or young children, people who work late, early, on weekends, or from home.  All these people have different rhythms to their lives.

Lesson 2 – Be aware, show consideration.  Taking into account all those different rhythms which you are unaware of, there are some basic premises to be applied. 
  • Know the curfew and noise-related statutes in your area and respect them.  In my city the noise ordinance prohibits “music from instruments, stereos, or car stereos that is plainly audible 50 feet from the source, or any sound that is plainly audible within any dwelling unit that is not the source of the sound.” So when I can hear your stereo at midnight on a Saturday from inside a house 90 feet away, it’s too loud. 
  • Remember, sound travels farther at night.  So have some consideration for your neighbors when you have parties or lots of guests, and bring it inside and key it down sometime after 10 pm.  You have no idea whose sleep you might be disturbing with your conversations and your jams.
  • Park in front of your own dwelling. It is not listed among the premises of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and because we think of our streets as public we sometimes forget this.  Yet stop for a moment and think about who might be living in your neighborhood: someone with a mobility handicap, someone toting small children and all the paraphernalia that comes with them, someone home-bound who receives regular visits from caregivers.  So don’t park your car any old where on the street.  Park as close to your house as you can, and respect that others in your neighborhood also have the implicit right to life, liberty, and guest parking.

Lesson 3 – Good manners and compassion are always in style.  Say “hello” once in a while.  You don’t have to share rings or make promises, no cups of sugar need be exchanged, no life stories divulged.  Just simply, politely acknowledge that someone else is there.  It is really up to you how far you take this and how friendly you choose to be.  There is no doubt that the greater world is a dangerous place.  However, I once observed an 80-something woman struggling down a flight of stairs with a big, rolling recycling bin while four strapping college “men” sat across the street on their front porch jawing and taking no notice at all.  Offering to help would have been good manners.  It doesn’t matter whether the person you offer help to accepts.  You show your awareness and compassion with the gesture, and those are investments in your own safety and well-being.

Lesson 4 – Your liberty only extends as far as the property line.  This thought wraps up with several others.  Yes, you are out on your own, and it is great.  If you were living in a dorm, or an apartment building even, there would be more structure and strictures to regulate you.  There would be building managers and residence staff, building rules and dorm regulations to follow, parking spaces assigned.  Living out in the greater community, things are not so tightly regulated and the structure becomes the city ordinances and the local police. Our communities exist with this relatively loose amount of oversight because people regulate themselves within them.  That means thinking of your neighbors, and how your choices might affect them. 

This all may seem like a bit of a downer.  I understand that.  Neighbors can be nosy and seem judgmental, chaffing at your newly acquired adultness.  I offer this story as an example of the value of good neighbors.

In my neighborhood a few years ago a group of college kids decided to set off some fireworks for July 4th.  Mind you, fireworks are illegal inside the city limits, but the kids were doing it in the middle of the street and showing consideration for passing cars, so none of the neighbors ratted on them to the police.  Several hours later, after midnight, there were sirens and fire trucks in the neighborhood.  The kids had responsibly cleaned up all the fireworks into a trash can and placed the bin at the corner of their house, where it usually sat.  They had neglected to douse the bin’s contents with water to make sure the embers were completely extinguished.  They were not. First the bin, then the house caught on fire. 

A neighbor noticed and called 911. It was a good thing they had because the Fire Department had a heck of time waking the young sleeping residents of the house.  That aware neighbor saved the lives of those kids.  Another neighbor had called the owner of the house, so he was able to be on hand to assist.  He did not wake up in the morning to the total destruction of his property, and the tragic fate of his tenants.  This all could have gone very differently, and very badly.  It did not because there were neighbors looking out for one another.  You may see this kind of awareness as a moral obligation, and it is.  Yet how many stories do we hear daily where people did not show such awareness and responsibility? 

You may rent an off-campus house 30 minutes from your Mom and Dad.  You may be thousands of miles from your family home.  It does not matter.  The little old lady down the street that seems to always be watching may seem annoying and intrusive.  She might also save your life, or you hers.  Being a good neighbor is a reflection on you, and on the University you attend.  Whether you like it or not the community will link your actions to the school.  However, being a good neighbor is much more than that: it is a reflection of who you are as a person, and an investment in your own safety and well being.  The seeds you sew in your community now will come back to help you, or haunt you, in years to come. 

That’s LIFE 101.  Class dismissed.

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