Sunday, May 8, 2011

An Open Letter to Travis Wright

Dear Travis:

We have been neighbors, during the past academic year, in the same dorm or boarding house here in Bloomington.  It has been a remarkable experience.

I am writing this message to you because there are some things we need to talk about.  I am writing rather than talking because efforts to talk with you face-to-face thus far have not succeeded.  I am posting this message publicly in hopes that you will take this approach seriously.  If you do, I anticipate revisions and/or addenda to this message as time goes on.  But if you are inclined to be as abusive toward others in your future life as you have been in my experience during the past year, that's a different story.  I am concerned that, for instance, the woman you have recently been dating has not yet seen the side of you that I have seen.  But you know, and I know, that if she stays with you, she will.

The nature of the situation, in brief, is that you have a problem.  I am not sure what that problem is.  I could certainly speculate about a clinical diagnosis.  Indeed, it has occurred to me that you have avoided talking to me precisely because you have prior experience with middle-aged men and women who have found your behavior disturbing and who have tried to talk to you about it -- mental health workers, perhaps, or school teachers, or principals.  I could have told you that I was perplexed that you -- a Phi Beta Kappa, a Cox Scholar, a young man of eminent potential -- would behave in ways that could jeopardize your future.  But I suspect you've heard it before.  Who knows?  Maybe your early successes in life have given you the notion that the rules don't apply to you.

The most worrisome kind of encounter I had with you, over the past year, has involved acts of physical bullying.  Most educated people now realize that bullying is a big red flag.  It's an issue in workplaces and, of course, in abusive domestic situations.  Needless to say, I have found it worrisome to hear you make loud remarks on several occasions, out in the hallway in our building, about how you were going to beat up this person or that person.  You're a big guy.  People who hear you say that sort of thing are going to believe that you mean it -- that this is, in fact, the kind of person you are.  There are all kinds of Phi Beta Kappas, but this doesn't sound like the more prudent kind.

I guess you know there's also the risk that, if you say something like that to the wrong person, or in the wrong place, you could get yourself stabbed or shot.  Consider, for instance, one of those nights when you and Dave, our fellow resident, went out partying.  You came in drunk at 12:30 AM and started pounding on my door -- and then, about 45 minutes later, you pounded on my wall.  Dave said you were out of control but assured me, afterwards, that he has rarely seen you that drunk.  But it only takes one time.  If you can't hold your liquor, you're going to be at risk of mouthing off to the wrong person at a bar, or getting physical with a person who lives with or near you.  Again, not a pretty picture.

I have to wonder what would have happened if I had not complained to the landlord about that episode.  He called you up and left a stern warning, and that seems to have had an impact.  Apparently that's what it took to stop that particular behavior.

Dave, your only friend in the building, tells me that you continuously harassed George, the person who lived in my room last year.  Noise was apparently an issue, as I can readily imagine.  My room was adjacent to the kitchen, and you seemed to enjoy going into the kitchen late in the evening, yelling, and slamming cupboard doors.  It does not ordinarily take an open letter, or even a request, to inform a college graduate that this sort of behavior is going to offend people.

Not to mention the singing.  Travis, I have to tell you:  Indiana University is famous for its music school, and you were not enrolled in it.  Laura, another resident, was enrolled there; Laura has a beautiful voice; yet Laura was considerate enough not to think that she could just cut loose in the hallway at random hours of day and night.  This was not at all the only way in which you inflicted your noises on the seven other residents of this floor, but it was a particularly painful one.  So, you know, in terms of mental issues, don't you suppose this sort of behavior could raise a question of narcissism?

I've mentioned some remarks by Dave.  I should say a few words about that.  On the basis of these nine months of observation, it appears that you have spent four years working and studying among thousands of people your age, and yet you have only one friend.  I mean, almost nobody ever visited you.  Dave was your friend because he lived next door.  But you are a hard person to be friends with, and Dave was plainly not comfortable with some of your behavior.

Think, Travis:  when your best friend is willing to tell a near stranger (me, shortly after I moved in) that your behavior is sometimes very aggressive, what's he going to tell the police or other authorities, if you are ever accused of something?  Perhaps you can see how this sort of behavior sets you up as a scapegoat or lightning rod for criticism -- as the person who will be presumed guilty even if you aren't.

There is a better way.  You do not seem to have learned much from Dave, but in this regard it would have been to your advantage to do so.  Consider the contrast between my first encounters with each of you.  The first time I met Dave, he was friendly and outgoing.  He offered some advice -- he may even have offered to help -- to aid my move into the building.  When I first met you, it was a different story.  I didn't get a handshake, a smile, or any attempt at conversation.  I got your back, as you went up the stairs ahead of me.  It just seemed odd at the time, but now I think it was a foretaste of what was to come.

I am 55 years old, and this is, I think, the first time in my life that I have met someone like you.  We have just finished nine months in which you did not once initiate a conversation with me -- not even "Hello."  Your door was literally seven paces from mine, and yet there was not so much as one single time, in these nine months, when you addressed me by name.  You have responded when I have spoken to you, but very briefly.  Again, there is probably a diagnosis for this -- you may already be aware of some such diagnosis -- but for my purposes it suffices just to say that this is unusual and is not what most people would expect.

When I say there is a better way, I don't mean just that it would be to your professional advantage to be more sociable.  I mean that your presence here made life less pleasant for the rest of us.  Trust me:  if you want to be accepted, it is not a good strategy to make people wish you would go away.

Consider the refrigerators.  We had two of them, to share among eight people.  Space was especially tight in their freezers.  You took most of one for yourself -- and you filled it with pre-wrapped foods that just sat there for the entire year.  Back in October, when I had to struggle to get space for a single water bottle on that top shelf, I pointed out the obvious inequity of this arrangement.  Everyone else had to jam their stuff into the remaining freezer space.  But you didn't change anything.  You didn't want to eat that stuff, and yet you also didn't want to let anyone else use part of that shelf.

It was this way, over and over, in your approach to shared space in the kitchen.  Your dirty pans on the stove; your spilled liquids left to dry on the counter.  You may recall the first time I asked you to remove your dirty dishes from the sink, so that other people could use it. You assured me you would do so; but you didn't actually do it. Some people are going to ask themselves: why bother trying to talk to a guy like this?

Throughout the year, your dirty dishes could be found sitting out on the countertop, often for days on end before you would bother to put them in the dishwasher.  Here, for instance, is your big slow-cooker pot, pretty much filling the sink, and some of your other dishes.

This was the way you treated a space shared by eight people.  But the really weird part was the way you seemed to think of it.  I believe you'll recall the note you left for me in the kitchen, on Conseco Insurance Companies stationery, when you returned from Christmas break:
Your note seemed to say that I should not have put your dirty dishes into an unused cupboard beneath the counter.  But what were we supposed to do?  You left them sitting on the counter and went home for three weeks, over the Christmas break.  You seemed to have the bizarre idea that we should not use the counter for three weeks -- that we should just wait for your return.  This was your "washing process."  What kind of person leaves notes like this?  As for your "expensive dishes" getting broken, the only thing I know about it is that you claimed the handle was broken on a $3 mug.

Things became even more bizarre when you did return to campus at the end of the Christmas break.  You actually brought those particular dirty dishes back out of the cupboard and, instead of washing them, you scattered them back across the countertops where they had been before, and that's where you left them.

When I saw your note and the dishes, I caught you in the kitchen and asked you about this.  At that time, your new girlfriend was there with you.  Maybe I should have shown her the note.  Suddenly, with her present, you weren't interested in defending what you had written.  Instead, you admitted that you should have washed the dishes, but now you claimed that it was actually Dave's responsibility to do so, before he took off on vacation.

There were other strange developments in the kitchen.  At one point, I stuck my head in your open doorway and asked you to come out and explain to me what was going on.  You said you couldn't because you were in the middle of a multiplayer online game.  That may have been true.  But you didn't seek me out afterwards either.

I got the impression that you were afraid to just talk to people -- that you wanted to leave flaming notes and then hide.  I don't know what to tell you about that, but I don't think you are going to get over this kind of fear by alienating people and putting them into a mindset where they don't want to talk to you and/or don't believe that trying will make any difference.

Instead of continuing with more examples from the kitchen, let me turn to another common area:  the bathroom.  Here's a photo of where you threw the hand towel that I kept on a towel rack in the bathroom, for everyone to use:

I know it was you:  I was in the bathroom immediately before you, and I went back immediately after you were out.  You did this repeatedly, week after week.  Eventually I removed the towel, and then we had a choice:  don't wash our hands, or have a wet doorknob.  Not that this is the worst example.  I started with a nicer, more absorbent towel.  And you blew your nose in it.

So I couldn't (and nobody else on our end of the floor did) leave a towel in the bathroom.  Compare our bathroom against the one used by the people on the other end of the floor.  First, theirs:

and then ours:

Another example:  the magazines that I left in the bathroom for everyone to read.  You couldn't just leave them on the shelf, open to the pages where Dave or I (or, sometimes, Laura) would leave them.  You had to close them up; throw them in the trash, or onto the dirty floor by the toilet plunger; rip their pages; or otherwise abuse these items that were not your property.

We got to a point where I just gave up and left the magazines on the floor; but then Dave, apparently trying to make peace, would put them back on the shelf, and you'd throw them back on the floor again.  Dave knew you were the culprit.  Again, Travis, think:  is this going to make him think well of you?

Again, I can't say what the right diagnosis would be, for this sort of thing.  But you seem to have a control need that requires you to screw around with other people's peace and quiet, with their minor possessions, with the common spaces in the residence.  It seems like you need to make yourself an irritant.  But why?  It doesn't make sense.

I could go on:  the shower; the stolen industrial-sized rolls of toilet paper; the blasts of cold air through your open door and window in midwinter, when you could see that the place (and especially your neighbor across the hall) was freezing.

It has actually been rather surprising, the extent to which you have been able to abuse common courtesy -- indeed, the signs of outright hostility.  It is as though you want to create dysfunctional relationships for yourself.  Even if you were incapable of being friendly, I think you would have been further ahead if at least you had treated your fellow residents with ordinary respect.

So that's the starting point.  Having sketched out the nature of the problem, we come to the question:  are you going to grow up and behave intelligently, or are you not able to do that?  I'm hoping that you can become a better person than you were during your time in this building.  Your career will not be served by this kind of behavior, and naturally I don't want you to hurt anyone else.

I continue to be interested in some explanation for this behavior.  It would be heartening to find that you are aware that you recognize, and are committed to improving and resolving, the sorts of improprieties I have described here.  If, however, you are determined to continue in an abusive path, I do want others to be warned, for two reasons:  I hope they will protect themselves as appropriate, and I also hope that some will reach out to you as I have done.  I suspect you will be headed down this road for some years, making yourself and others miserable in the process, and if possible I would like to contribute to an ultimately more positive outcome.