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31 July 2006

I recently decided to stay in New York City for one more year. Lots about the city is fascinating and wonderful, obviously, or I wouldn't stay -- but I am left feeling uneasy about certain things, and thinking about parts of my home state of Maine.

For all that is fascinating and enjoyable about this city, there is also something dark and draining. I still haven't figured out if this is simply a matter of perception -- not in the sense that it doesn't exist, but in the sense that if I learned to squeeze my eyes such so, I wouldn't see it, or that if looked in the other direction, it would fade.

I'm not really sure how to explain it. I've talked to others who feel the same way, and it's as if each of us is able to articulate an aspect of the whole. One friend described the feeling of constantly missing out, of not being with the right people, of feeling a steady pressure, carried in the air itself, of needing to do more, be more, buy more, more more more all the time. Another friend echoed this tonight; he talked about seeing those people who are always a bit more beautiful than you -- the gym-designer-mirror crew, who of course in this city are often culture and knowledge workers -- the publishing and music and entertainment world crew. The people who make the Village and lower sides so oily sometimes, a theme park of counterculture affluence, armfuls of tattoos and skater punk uniforms and headed out of Bally's in search of a massage. The people who get rich young and marry someone on a billboard.

There's an element of distaste slipping into my words, and I'm not entirely comfortable with that. To each his, or her, own, after all; and if nobody is hurt against their will what is the harm? And so I should be reminded. But this is, at any rate, a facet of city culture I try to keep out of my own mental atmosphere. There are others -- the sheer number of people, the lack of solitude, the pain and frustration. Of course, the inverse of these are much of why I stay -- special people, unexpected moments of silence, the moments of everyday humor and grace. But I find myself slowly accreting a certain psychic shell to deal with it. Shell is probably the wrong word; I don't move through my days behind a mental wall, I haven't lost my feelings. But something is missing here, there is a void, some basic substance that ought to exist naturally between people and doesn't . . . a lack of time, space, maybe even love . . . and to avoid being sucked into the vacuum, you hold on to your own anchors. This sounds far more dramatic and conscious than it is. As with anywhere, you just live your life and enjoy your friends and try to live well. But doing that takes more energy here, I think, in many other places, such as Maine.

My friend tonight, drinking beers and watching the walkers on DeKalb, the kids in the park across the street, absorbing the pleasant hum of life, called it down-to-earthness: tolerance, generosity, independence, resourcefulness and humor, mixed together in all the different shapes of potatoes, gourds, vegetables that when farmed with freedom rather than industrialism are so extraordinarily various . . . sometimes people ask if, growing up in a small place, I found the range of people, and their frame of mind, narrow. Quite the opposite: Bangor, Maine, and the communties in the north that I've visited, were strongly tolerant, even encouraging, of idiosyncracy and individuality. Far more so than, say, the suburbs I've seen. Not that tolerance or intolerance are overt -- they are like soil, growing conditions, parameters that are unnoticed but real.

Maybe this is a residue -- or a surviving strain -- of the frontier mentality. People who rely on their neighbors to survive, who tell stories at night, are people who in the end don't need to care what you do in your bedroom, or where you are from or what you believe or what you look like, so long as you make life a little richer and are steady in a pinch. They might have a big-screen television now, but the television will never be more important than people. If you sit on a bench beside them, they talk to you. Whatever all this is, it's a mentality that is as relaxed and refreshing as tall grass in summer, changing leaves in sunshine, hot breakfasts on a cold morning. And here in the city it is an uncommon flower. But then again, common enough that I am staying, for at least another year.