Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Cost of Privacy

Today, an unfortunate sick day coincided with a visit from my roommate's other half. I'm not a fan - I feel like he's always in my space. He doesn't wash dishes properly, so they need to be rewashed, he does "home improvement" projects that tend to result in messes I have to clean up and dust that gets everywhere, and he situates himself in areas I'd like a little privacy.

Frankly, when I have vomit-face I don't want to see anyone when I open my bedroom door and move into my bathroom. Let alone some loafing stranger sitting on the couch flipping through a car newspaper.

I don't say anything because I know she's going through a rough time right now, largely spurred on by legitimate money concerns, and I'm almost done and relocating to live with my lovely other.

But the whole thing got me thinking about the price of privacy.

There are periods where I've relished a lack of privacy and lived in extremely communal situations. However, in my North American life (as a whole) I've consistently disliked living with roommates but have done it for five of the last six years. I regularly struggle with the difference - why I can't make an easy transition from "communal" to "shared" space? Right now, I know my summer abroad will be super communal and being around other people will add to the experience. I also know that when I move back in the Fall, all finances pending, I plan to finally justify living alone.

One of the things I enjoy about voluntary communal living is the pooling of resources and common activities. Real communal living is about contribution and being open to those around you. A true "communal" space has: (1) multiple personalities, (2) no distinct claims to space, (3) respectful understandings that result in consequences if breached.

The key difference is "community" - setting rules or standards is done by a group, not on a one-to-one basis. Another key is that personality differences, for me, blend in. A third difference is the lack of value placed on space - there is an understanding all space is communal and no one gets more than, say, a specific place to sleep. A final likely difference is that people who are not able to function in communal spaces tend to avoid them...

Contrast this with a roommate (or two). With a roommate you are faced with the quirks of one person, all the time. The reason most people are living with another person is because there is a value placed on the space. Any rule-making tends to be "imposition" by one person on another rather than a more neutral respectful understanding.

Because I'm a little grumpy from all this flu, let's review roommates through the ages:

The Cat Lady: I was allergic to her cat, which she allowed to walk on the counters. Her entire room smelled terrible and I avoided going in there for fear of seeing something new that would disgust me, like when it became apparent the entire floor of her en suite was covered in litter never cleaned up and tracked through our carpet. Our conversations revolved around how too much cream resulted in extra gastro grossness for the cat, how much she loved the cat, and how hot she was. I plead the fifth on the latter.

The Angry Married Couple: next, I lived with a young couple. Aside from the annoying habit they had of playing full volume video games outside my room during exam week, and washing unrinsed ash trays in the dishwasher, it became increasingly apparent they were unhappily married and needed a roommate to keep them together - they wouldn't fully fight in front of me but I could sense the tension. I moved out, they split up. I'm on decent terms with them both and still party with her periodically when we're in the same city.

The Uber Jock: next, I lived with a young professional who could never be alone. For an entire year I listened to play-by-plays of his sex life with his two girlfriends who both had the same name (he didn't like fidelity or doing the dishes, apparently); I didn't actually need the play by plays because the walls were that thin. The parties were constant, and some were fun, but he was so competitive I had to hide the fact I was doing really well in our course from him or face the consequences. He was the guy evil enough to throw a party the night before the exam, get everyone doing shots and stay sober in hopes of riding high on the curve.

The Princess: following an international hiatus, I got a letter for an acquaintance about a spare room. It was in a great building and a great location, and the rent was super cheap. Within a month, my best friend had nicknamed her "Sympathy Suzie" because she always had a major problem in her (very easy) life which no normal person would construe as a problem but I was required to listen to as I was dealing with some very real situations. For example, I had an invasive, painful surgery earlier in the day. She was considerate enough to point out a recent vaccination she'd had (yellow fever, ouch!) and invite some people over to our very small apartment so I'd be forced to hide in my room, looking and feeling really messed up. Better still, upon moving in it became clear that what she actually wanted wasn't the rent money - it was possibly my life. She wanted to date guys in my boyfriend's profession, and to hang out with my circle of friends (who had met and didn't like her). She also had a variety of food issues causing her to pay obsessive attention to what I was eating and discuss it:

SS: I see you also bought salmon cream cheese.
FF: Yeah, I'll have to not confuse those.
SS: Don't you think fat free tastes exactly the same as full? Just saving some calories!
[I always purchase full fat]
FF: Yes.

The Not So Single Guy: upon relocating to a new city where I knew no one, I moved in with a guy who attempted to illegally raise my rent two months into it when it became apparent I wasn't interested in sleeping with him or making him meals. Interestingly, he told me he was single when he moved in but it quickly became apparent he wasn't - he had a jealous girlfriend who began appearing frequently at our house three weeks in. As an added bonus, he trained his dog to defecate in the basement when he couldn't make it home to let her out.

To demonstrate I'm not the only one who picks terribly, my best friend is currently having the SAME experience in another city (the sleep-with not-so-single thing, not the dog problem)

The Current Roommate: I actually really like my current roommate, for all purposes, just not the significant other.

However, she marks a likely end of splitting the rent as I feel I've paid my dues and the cost of privacy is an upgrade I finally feel I'm coming due on. I recognize, rereading this, it probably seems like I have terrible judgment. Indeed, many mutual friends would seriously question how I could live with the above (the uber jock, the princess), I ended up living with both because I was out of the country and needed to come back. I actually lived with the Angry Married Couple for a really long time and dated the roommate who had lived in my room before me - overall, a group of good people. It's a consolation so many of my friends who moved in with "randos" have had similar frustrating experiences. Overall, I feel like living with so much crazy has made me more tolerant than I was when I first left home as a teenager. It will probably make me better suited to living with a significant other some day. And hopefully, it makes for a somewhat entertaining (commiserating) post.

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