Airplanes And Place And Falling In and Out of Love

Is there any contrast greater than that between New York as seen from street-level, and from the air?

Peering down over Manhattan during descent on my recent flight from MSP to LGA, I thought nothing so profound. I thought, instead: how funny does that single yellow taxi look, crawling down a midtown street? And, I wonder what my parents are making for dinner? And, is this where I want to live?

A few years ago I attended a cocktail party on U Street in Washington; it was the first time I remember so directly confronting people far younger than me with far more power. But that smart paled next to the blithe comment of a male acquaintance with whom I stood in the cramped kitchen, sipping craft beer: “Oh yeah, I used to read your blog,” he said. “But then, it gets kind of repetitive: you know, single girl in the city, blah blah.” He appeared to expect my sympathetic agreement: Oh yeah, my writing bores the heck out of me, too!

As I write this I’m realizing that anecdote itself may be a repetition. Which means I’ll have to  now beg your forgiveness on three counts:

1) For Being Repetitive.

2) For Repeating Myself Whilst Apologizing for Being Repetitive.

3) For Using Said Repetitive Apology to Excuse Yet Another Blog Post About My New York Angst.

Speaking of repeating myself, you have by now now likely gleaned that I spent the five weeks prior to that flight in a small town in Minnesota.

And maybe you suspected that I found myself wondering, as I, indeed, did: is this what I’m cut out for, after all? Small town life?

Probably you know that I have spent the last ten years toggling back and forth on the question of whether to live in New York City. And maybe you didn’t realize–I certainly had not–that this particular option, a small town, hadn’t occurred to me.

Before I left, I had been loving my hyper-social New York life. And I imagined that my retreat in New York Mills would be just that: I pictured myself cloistered in some remote and musky garret, hunched over my laptop, typing away the days in a manic fugue.

This was not to be. Instead, by the end of my first week I had found a handful of friendships I was sure could, if circumstances agreed, become lifelong. I’d been charmed by the Lions Club auction and the donut shop and the peculiar, misplaced use of first person plural (“We’ll see ya!”); by the Thursday Town meeting and wide country roads and the Upper Midwest’s stark, minimal awe.

Among that handful of friendships was the woman I mentioned in my last post, who I referred to as my Doppelganger: also from New York, also a writer, also dark-haired and loosely Semitic. One night she invited me to her spacious farmhouse for a lesson in canning–she and her husband had tapped their trees.

“How did you learn to do this?” I asked.

She pointed to a book splayed open on the dining room table: Canning for Dummies.

A moment later we heard the whooshing sound of hot liquid: the maple syrup had boiled over. Flames rose up from the stove, syrup oozed quick from the saucepan in thick peels.

“Oh shit,” she said. I entertained her with gossip as she folded over the stovetop and scrubbed.

“This is why the two Jewish girls from New York should not can unsupervised!” I said.

It was a joke. In fact, despite the mishap, she seemed utterly at home here: in this sunny rural house with animals and a back deck and an office that gave her room to write. It was more of a stretch for me to picture her navigating the crowded streets of downtown Brooklyn or SoHo on a bright Saturday in spring–what I knew to be her native habitat. I met her in this context, and in it, she seemed to fit.

It struck me, watching her tangle with the stained kitchen surfaces, that people can adapt to anything.

Anyone can learn to can, or ride the subway; all of us learn language, and codes of culture, and sciences and recipes; some of us learn to drive on ice or how to fly planes or tie knots or knit sweaters or bake muffins or climb tall things. People are magnificently capable. We learn to live wherever we do.

“There’s no such thing as the one,” my new friend told me that night—once we’d given up on canning and began discussing our love lives over bars of orange-flavored dark chocolate. “You know what Dan Savage says: it’s the .67 that you round up.”

It’s true, I later thought, for place as well as people: despite her evident comfort in her new rural home, there have been plenty of moments in which my friend feels displaced, out of her element. As with partners, there’s always compromise.

Flying into New York, Manhattan’s neat geometry felt like a cosmic joke: the orderly perfection of it, the illusion of calm, as though the universe were trying to assure me, from many thousand feet, that the city could match the country serenity for which I’d fallen.

You are trying to trick me again, I wanted to plead with someone omniscient; How many times can I fall in and out of love with New York? 

Evidently, a lot of times. That’s one thing I’ve begun to grasp. Another is that the city doesn’t go away, it pulses always, and the challenge of finding my place in it will be there, always, too–If I want it.


NYC vs. NYM: A Comparative Glance

If I told you that there was a town in rural, Northwest Minnesota called New York Mills with a population of about 1,200, one liquor store (also a bar), one grocery (open til 8, 6 on weekends) and one diner (closes at 3), I suspect you’d assume that place to share nothing–besides half a name–with New York City.

You would be almost right.

Indeed, after two thirds a lifetime in New York City and five weeks in my new, second home of New York Mills (don’t worry, I’ve, for now, returned), I can attest to significant cultural differences–as well as some unexpected parallels.

Many of the general gaps are obvious–diversity, population, incidence of subways and snow-ploughs. And it is with great affection that I offer a few more specifics:

  1. Minnesota Nice. NYC-ers may or may not be familiar with this phrase: a catch-all for the manner most Minnesotans, especially rural ones, assume–particularly with one another, and, after staring at you as though you have dyed red hair, which you may or may not have, or as though they’ve never seen you before, which they probably haven’t, you as well. This often manifests as a folksy comment distributed while waddling out of a booth at Eagles Cafe, post Rib Special: “Oh ya, don’t study too hard!” (Arm pump). Or, say, if it’s May and blizzard-ing for the third time that week, “Hey, snow enough for ya?”
  2. Purpose of Exercise. After my first NYM Zumba class–taught in the “Facility Room” of the local Elementary School and focused on the study of choreography and town gossip, rather than the object of sweating, I explained to my dancemates how Zumba, and exercise classes in general, tend to be different in NYC: “You see,” I explained. “Unlike here, in New York you have to be skinny.” They nodded, a mix of interest and horror. ”Like, if you can breathe between songs, people get pissed.” We happily shimmied on. A few weeks (and, I must admit, several accumulated pounds of Donut Weight) later I went to another NYM class, this one in the lobby of a Lutheran Church: we did neck rolls and side planks to the faint sounds of piano music; between sets, an assortment of eighty-somethings discussed nominees for Church President. En route to the pews for some leisurely tricep dips, I overheard the instructor: “Geez, I think I’m sweatin,” she said. “I guess that’s a good thing.”
  3. Thoughts on Procreation. Growing up in NYC, I’m not sure I realized that women under thirty-five were biologically capable of bearing children. Still, it was a bit startling to discover that most femaled my age in New York Mills had already birthed at least three. In NYC, the family-size question one most often overhears is whether to have a second baby; in NYM, it’s whether to have a fourth. (The answer, it seems, is most often yes.)
  4. Types of Dudes who Drink PBR. In NYC, we tend to associate the iconic beer can with a certain breed of underfed hipster who rides a fixed gear and rarely bathes. In NYM, it’s more popular among beer-bellied, football-watching Dads who drive oversized trucks and consume a lot of processed meat. Sometimes I like to imagine the two groups convened; patronizing, alternately, a Lions Club meeting in Mills and warehouse band practice in Bushwick.
  5. People Who Speak Finnish. Probably, there’s some remote pocket of Queens with a population larger than all of NYM and its’ surrounding Otter Tail County. Honestly, I could never quite sort out what distinguishes Finns from  similarly blond and hard-drinking Midwestern types of Other Scandinavian descent; then again, perhaps they would feel similarly pressed to sort out the Jews from the Italians from the Otherwise Swarthy in Park Slope.

Of course, that’s just scratching the surface. And while the differences may be vast, in my estimation Mills and NYC do share more than a couple of common traits; okay, three:

  1. Central Park. NYM’s is about the size of a standard East Village studio, which, considering the spatial surroundings is not without irony–but hey: it’s not a competition.
  2. Greenwood Cemetary. Both got em–kid you not.
  3. A Concentration of Dark-Haired, Under Forty Women Jewish Writers Who Wear Glasses and Write Memoir. Yes, during the five weeks that I was the Visiting Artist at the New York Mills Cutural Center, there were–to my great surprise–two of us. Among my many unexpected discoveries upon arriving in NYM was a voicemail from The Other, a talented singer songwriter named Elisa Korenne who, during her own Cultural Center residency several years ago, got set up (by the same woman who, I must tell you, also had someone for me–stay tuned) with the man who is now her husband. She is currently writing a (beautiful) memoir about the NYC-NYM transition, about which I am mostly thrilled, and minorly disappointed that she got to it first. Okay fine, NYC may lay claim to a few million more of our kind–but again, folks, we’re dealing with Minnesotans: learn from them for one fucking second and Be Nice.