A Tale of Three Cities

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“I started thinking about what my life was going to look like when I was 50.”

This week, I stumbled across an article I can’t stop thinking about: Bright Lights, Small City. In it, Jami Attenberg discusses the consequences – expected and unexpected – of relocating from New York City to New Orleans, after 18 years, at age 42.

The article immediately struck a chord with me, because I also recently moved to a new city (Chicago) from one I’d called home for more than two decades (San Francisco).

Both the author and I are single, with no children — and if there’s a gene behind long-term personal life planning, we were both born without it. For us, “Living day by day (has) always seemed a valid way to operate.” Now, we’re questioning that operating model.

Like Attenberg, I lived in New York after college, and felt like I was at the center of the universe. Everything comes to New York first – every fashion trend, every indie movie, every play. It can be exhilarating, but also wearying. And very lonely.

Image result for california or bustAfter graduate school, I hurried to San Francisco. It felt cozier and friendlier, until an influx of tech money — BIG money — triggered a seismic shift in demographics, median income and cost of living. Life began to feel hard for “the rest of us”, just as it had in New York.

Borrowing again from Attenberg: “I wanted things to be easier and sunnier and I wanted to own a house.” That was never going to happen for me anywhere in the Bay Area.

Family obligations brought me East in 2018, and I chose a city where I knew I’d feel welcome. Sweet Home Chicago is vibrant, interesting and diverse with a rich history embraced by proud residents. Anthony Bourdain summed it up perfectly in a 2016 Medium essay:

“It is, also, as I like to point out frequently, one of America’s last great NO BULLSHIT zones. Pomposity, pretentiousness, putting on airs of any kind, douchery and lack of a sense of humor will not get you far in Chicago.”

I’ve blogged about the uncertainty I’m facing these days. An untimely job elimination has me in professional and personal limbo. When I’m especially anxious, I find myself scrutinizing every aspect of life in Chicago. Am I happy here? Should I try someplace new? What if this city is just too big for me?

Image result for The second mountain imagesToday I saw New York Times columnist David Brooks speak, as part of the Chicago Humanities Festival, to promote his new book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. He posits that 50 years of American individualism, and a focus on personal achievement, have spawned a lonely population that lacks deep personal connections and a sense community belonging.

Brooks shared this stat: Just 8% of Americans say they’ve had meaningful conversations with a current neighbor. That hit home, because last night I bumped into my neighbor as he was moving out of his apartment. Not only did I not know his name, I realized I’d never given him more than cursory eye contact and a perfunctory “hello” in the hallway. He’d lived next door for an entire year, and this was our first (and last) conversation.

Yes, Chicago is enormous. I can sometimes feel lost and lonesome here – but I must own my part in that. To feel settled, like I belong, there’s more I can do. It’s not as if I don’t have time! Even the most committed job seeker needs distractions.

I’d love to say I’m exactly where I’m meant to be, like Jami Attenberg in New Orleans. A lot depends on where my next career opportunity takes me. I must earn a living, and there’s a chance I’ll need to relocate to do it. Chicago is a wonderful city, but it’s not the only one.

Meanwhile, it’s time I begin the awkward (for an introvert) task of planting my stake in my current community, and building deeper connections here. For starters, when my future neighbor moves in, we WILL chat, and I WILL commit his/her name to memory, damn it!

Sometimes in movies, a sickly character will discuss his impending demise – philosophizing that everyone dies. He just happens to have an ETA.

If I’ve learned just one thing in the last two years, it’s this: EVERYONE’S future is uncertain, but most of us just don’t know which shoe is about to drop — or when. Our only choice is to go with what we know.

Maybe it’s time to go forth, and find my Chicago tribe. Wrigley Field on a sunny day seems like a great place to start…

Carpe Diem! — John Keating (aka Robin Williams)

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Friendships: Tried or True?

Scene from the Universal Pictures film "Babe", as the title character pig talks gives direction to a group of sheep.
“Babe” and his friends


“If you ever win a trip to Hawaii, and it rains the whole time, at least one person you know back home will secretly get some satisfaction from that.”

My mom told me this once, when I was young.  I don’t recall the context of the remark, nor do I know why it has stuck with me for so many years.  As kids we lack the guile and emotional baggage of adults, so maybe the concept seemed so crazy I needed a few decades to decide for myself if it was true. Who would be mean-spirited enough to wish someone a crummy vacation?

I’m now a battle-scarred veteran of life, who is still waiting to win that trip to Hawaii. In the meantime I’ve had opportunities to test my mom’s theory in other ways, and I must admit: she had a point. Of course, our true friends want us to succeed and be happy no matter what. (If you doubt this for yourself, now is probably a good time to reassess your definition of friendship.) Facebook got it right, though; relationships are complicated.

I’m talking to all you single ladies out there.  How often have you seen BFF’s fall out, because one of them starts dating a new guy? Sometimes, she blows off her female friends for the sake of being a “good girlfriend”, which is hurtful and lame, and her friends have every right to be resentful. But often, it’s just a matter of the dynamic changing. What happens when your best single friend — your go-to weekend brunch and movie date — isn’t single anymore? It can feel like you’ve been left behind, and being left behind hurts.

Clasped hands and forearms signifying supportChanges to dynamics at the office can have similar impacts. At my company, employees take a yearly survey to measure our engagement, with the recurring question, “Do you have a best friend at work?” It was confusing at first, but it’s not a suggestion that everyone’s best friend SHOULD BE a colleague. Rather, it’s intended to measure the depth of our workplace relationships, and how many of us has a teammate we believe really has our back.

I’ve blogged quite a few times about my job change last October. Reactions to my seizing a new opportunity were mixed, with good work friends – the ones I often socialize with outside the office – of course being the most enthusiastic and supportive. Other colleagues who had spent much of their careers in the group I was leaving were a bit more… reserved. While warmer wishes would have been welcomed, I didn’t much worry about what those folks thought.  I figure we’re just cut from different cloth. They were not my BFFs at work.

What DID worry me was the impact on relationships with friends at work who had been company in my previous misery. How much enthusiasm could I show for my new job without alienating one of them?  A few years ago, a close friend/colleague and I went through rough patches at work together, and spent many lunches and happy hours commiserating. But when I emerged from my funk before she did, our friendship went south. I’ve often wondered if I seemed insensitive or boastful. If I did, it wasn’t intentional.  I suspect in fact, we just weren’t as close friends as I’d thought we were.

Last week, I joined a particularly happy happy hour, with a group of colleagues who stood by and supported me in last year’s gloomiest days. We were five tipsy ladies, celebrating recent career changes that, without exception, had been positive. We high-fived and congratulated one another, and laughed a little harder and louder than we’d done in the past. Our work war stories lacked the bitter edge they’d sometimes had.

It wasn’t a true test of my mom’s theory because everyone at the table was in a good space personally and professionally – but even if that weren’t the case, I hope those who had found their happy place could have offered encouragement to the ones still struggling, even while celebrating their own good fortune without self-consciousness.  By doing so, they’d be showing there’s light at the end of the tunnel, if nothing else.

After all, isn’t that what friends are for?

Four kids who are friends, sit on a dock with their arms around each others'' shoulders.