Tuesday, January 19, 2010

New York state of mind

To me, the interesting thing Penelope had to say in this post was not about racism or religion but about culture and how we define ourselves relative to it.

One of the things I've spent a lot of time thinking (and worrying) about is where I belong. Where I belong professionally, geographically, even socially. I spent a decade in academia, not primarily because I loved my work or even because I didn't know how to leave, but because I felt I belonged there. It is hard to leave somewhere you feel you belong, even knowing you are likely to be happier somewhere else.

More and more, I have no idea where I belong. I used to belong in the East Coast suburbs where I grew up, and when I left them to go to college and grad school I experienced a culture shock. I spent most of my time in the Midwest feeling like a fish out of water, whether I was at school or at home; at home or at my parents' house. Nothing in my new environment was what I was used to; it was foreign and at first a little bit wrong-seeming, or at least wrong for me. But after a few years I grew to appreciate it, and then my childhood home became the place that seemed wrong for me. Perhaps more jarring than growing to love the Midwest was realizing it was possible for me to do so; I had unconsciously internalized all kinds of stereotypes without realizing they were neither accurate nor complete, and it was difficult to come to the realization that my life as I experienced it was in direct opposition to what I thought I knew.

Now, in New York, I miss these places. I miss small college towns. I miss open space. I miss the people, too; one thing about people in New York is that, while there are certainly all kinds and while many of them are from somewhere else, they all chose to come here. People in other places mostly have never lived in New York and never wanted to, which is a very appealing trait.

My parents don't like New York. Or, actually, they do like it, as a place to visit. But not as a place to live. They talk a lot about my "New York Lifestyle," which in their minds seems to resemble a montage of Sex and the City clips. Needless to say this bears little to no resemblance to my actual lifestyle, which contains less alcohol and more sensible shoes. But it probably is the lifestyle most people associate with New York, and while I know - both from doing it and from seeing other people do it, sometimes much better - that it is possible to have a different sort of life in New York, I sometimes wonder whether it is worth being here if you are going to have a different sort of life.

I don't think I will ever really belong here. This is not in itself an impediment; as far as I can tell, the city is mostly populated by people who don't feel they belong here. It's a giant, scary place, and living here is like riding a dragon might be; it's a wild ride, if you can handle it, and there's nothing quite like it, but the dragon is not ever going to become your pet. The fact that you can't own the city is the better part of its appeal, but not everyone is cut out to spend their lives in a place that will bit your arm off as soon as look at you.

But it gets under your skin. I was talking about this the other day with a friend who has been here four years and who, while not exactly loving it, doesn't think she could ever leave. The way she put it was that New York has spoiled her for everywhere else, but I don't think that's accurate. Softness and ease spoils you; wild rides are addictive. I think leaving New York is probably something you either have to have done to you or something that takes all your energy - like leaving academia, which I've spent half a decade working on with, so far, little success. I think it's scary because you say things to yourself like "where will I get a decent bagel?' and "how can I live without regular access to world-famous visual and performing arts?" and "the energy of the city makes me feel alive!". You remind yourself of all the great things New York has and let the bad things - the stink of the air, the constant crowding, the rudeness, the trash on the streets, the inability to buy basic necessities at reasonable prices, scary people on the subway, the fact that every time you try to go anywhere you have to navigate a dozen unpleasant situations per block - become routine and ritual annoyances. And so you stay.

I don't think that will be me. A lot of people here grew up in suburbs and have been here since college. They don't know anything else. To them, living outside New York is the same as living with their parents, or worse, being their parents. It is being stifled and bored, having no life outside of ferrying your children to soccer practice, not participating in anything larger than a teenager's vision of their parents' life as mindless wastelands.

I've lived other places. Not for long, perhaps, but long enough. I know what it's like to have a commute that doesn't involve watching rats scurry around in tunnels. I know what it's like to go to a real Target or grocery store or shopping mall and buy the things you need without worrying about where, if you don't open that box of tissues for three days, you can possibly store it. I know what it's like to look out your window and see trees and animals instead of, or in addition to, concrete and brick. I know what it's like to live somewhere you know well, where people and things become familiar over time, where you can find a small part of the world to gradually grow to belong to, and how good it feels to belong somewhere. Other people think, in their heads, that life outside New York might possibly be easier - they might have more space, more time, more money - but I remember that it actually is easier. That it's rewarding, too, to drive on roads that looked like something off a maple syrup package and to shovel snow, and have allergies to pollen rather than dust. It's rewarding to have friends rather than drinking buddies and to have them not really care who makes more money or wears smaller clothes. It's rewarding to know where to get the best soup and coffee, and who I will see there, and not having to worry if there will be open seats. Having space and time and money to spare is freeing and delightful.

I don't want to idolize it; I remember the bad stuff, too, the stuff that people in New York fear: driving for hours to get to a major airport or museum, aggressive advertisements for churches, waiting longer for things to come in the mail. But in New York, the bad things are background and the good things are occasional (perhaps frequent, but still occasional in the sense of discrete and occurring on distinct occasions); elsewhere, outside the city and beyond the suburbs, the good things are background and the bad things are occasional. The good things, the reasons for living there, are the things you have every day, rather than things you have to work to include in your life. It's thrilling to live among so much excellence and excitement, but it would be more pleasant to live somewhere clean and quiet and nice.

I won't be ready to leave for a while. New York is good for me right now. It's an amazing experience, living here. I'm learning so much. I'm also figuring out what I want to do in my life, and while you can figure that out anywhere, you can't necessarily act on it anywhere; in New York, you can act on almost anything. But when it's time to leave, I hope I will be able to free myself by remembering the daily, easy joy of living somewhere less intoxicating.


  1. When I try to explain my choice to live in low-key Sacramento, I talk about the variance. Sac is a B-rate city with a very low standard deviation. Spectacular things mostly don't happen, but neither do awful things. I think big cities have a much higher SD. One day you might get an incredible free concert, majestic buildings, sunrise on the ocean. But, another day could be draining and horrible, where everything fights you. We don't get those here.

  2. Megan: I really like that description.

    I think a city like New York is worth living in, for some people, at some time in their life. It's exciting, and when you're young and don't have too many responsibilities, excitement is more important and inconveniences matter less. But when you start wanting calmness and stability in your life, or when you want to spend your time on things other than seeing what you can see in a bizarre and ever-changing metropolis, or when you are responsible for other people, then I think the math starts too change.

    I also think there is something to be said for having lived in New York.