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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Living Single: It’s Complicated

Sean Lowe, a fan favorite on “The Bachelorette,” was cast as “The Bachelor” in 2013.
Rick Rowell/ABC

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about my single-person status. Unlike many of my friends, I’ve spent more of my adult life as a solo act, than as half of a couple. It hasn’t been a conscious choice. In fact it’s not something I think much about, one way or the other, unless someone else brings it up. Lately, someone (or something) always seems to be bringing it up.

A few weeks ago, I bumped into an old friend who I had not seen in about seven years. During that time, she went through a tough divorce, and her oldest daughter left for college. Meanwhile, I moved apartments twice, changed jobs several times, built a small photography business on the side and started blogging.  Yet her very first question to me — once we got past the perfunctory how-are-you-you-look-great-so-do-you stuff — was, “Are you seeing anybody?”

I was perplexed by the question, or more accurately by the timing of the question. I was not a big dater when we hung out together, and even then was not preoccupied with finding a man. There are so many ways to assess how someone you haven’t seen in a while is faring: where she works (or in this economy, IF she is working!), her and her family’s health, whether she still does that “thing” that was always central to her identity, like running marathons, taking photos, fanatically following a particular sports team or whatever. Why would my relationship status, of all things, be the best yardstick to measure my wellbeing?

I wasn’t offended, of course. She meant no harm. I was mostly annoyed with myself because my reflex response was inauthentic; I mugged for my audience, sighing and frowning to imply a sad resignation over not being in a relationship. My life is pretty great at the moment, but unconsciously I felt pressure to present being single as a burden to be borne, and my Meryl Streep-quality acting performance did not disappoint. I’m surprised my friend didn’t offer to set me up on a blind date then and there.

That run-in got me thinking about a woman I knew in my 30s — I’ll call her V — who since puberty had never been single. Not once. Sadly, with each boyfriend she did a complete overhaul of herself, her interests and her value system to match his. Prior to our meeting, she lived with a vegan in a rural cabin, and not only renounced meat eating, but also leather wear of any kind.  Her next boyfriend – and eventual husband — was a quintessential fashion-loving, carnivorous Metrosexual, so she quickly bid adieu to Tofurky and Plether in favor of foie gras and top-grain suede.

I lost touch with the chameleon-like V after she got engaged. Her fiancé was needy and possessive, and felt threatened when she socialized with others. Eventually so much wifely compliance began to chap V’s hide (leather pun!), though, and she began to consider leaving him. She invited me to lunch so that I could give her the skinny on being single – since I am apparently so GOOD at it, and all.

My point of view on the subject hasn’t changed much between then and now. There are some obvious pros to being single. Outside of work, I’m beholden to pretty much no one. I don’t have to pick up after someone else, or worry about the position of the toilet seat when I stumble into the bathroom in the middle of the night. I am in sole possession of my TV remote at all times, so I have never seen an episode of Top Gear, or watched a Fast and Furious film.

That said, there are downsides to singleness — especially if solitude is not your thing. A few of my friends wouldn’t DREAM of going to a movie or eating in a restaurant on their own, let alone travelling solo. Those things don’t intimidate me in the slightest, but there are occasional indignities associated with them. For example, Friday was my last day of vacation, so I caught a movie before my optometrist appointment, then stopped in at Lucky Strike for a snack. I was shown to a seat at the long bar that surrounds the place on three sides — hostesses always prefer to steer parties of one to the bar, rather than a table for two — and from that point forward was completely ignored.  Now, I don’t think the staff deliberately snubbed me for being single. I was just invisible to them, as I sat quietly trying to decipher the menu through dilated pupils. Perhaps they assumed I was waiting for someone to join me, who knows. After about 15 minutes, I did a LeBron and took my talents next door to Umami Burger, where I was seated at a TABLE and served promptly. (I tipped accordingly.)

When you are single, such awkward situations can occur fairly regularly. To maintain our sanity, we solo artists learn to shrug it off.  Sometimes I even manage to LAUGH it off.

Walking hand-in-hand Tom Cruise and wife Katie Holmes are pictured walking through the streets of Reykjavic in what is believed to be the last photograph of the couple together. Holmes filed for divorce two weeks later.
Photo: Splash

Say what you will about the downsides of singledom, it’s far preferable to being in an unsatisfying relationship in which one party (i.e. me) must impersonate someone her partner wants her to be, rather than be her authentic self. My parents generously provided me a great education, so that I would never have to make that tradeoff.

And so, the next time I’m asked if I’m dating anyone – posed with a look that’s part hope, part pity – I will ditch the hangdog expression. I’ll assure my inquisitor that things are great, my life is happy… and if I can think of a funny quip I may throw that in too.