Vacation: The Return, the Malaise

July 5th, 2011  |  by  |  Published in Divorce 'n' Custody  |  4 Comments

As some few of you may have noticed, I have been absent from the site for about a week, during which time I traveled to Minnesota, where my brother lives with his wife and two daughters. We didn’t do much during that week other than relax, at their swimming club, at a lake outside of St. Paul, on their porch sipping shandys and watching the Midwesterners drift by in their well-mannered, distantly cheery haze. My brother’s kids, both girls, are close enough to JP in age for them to be playmates, and Ellie, who is now crawling, enjoyed the extra space in the house, as well as the sunshine, and the way that everyone made a big deal over her.

People tell me that my brother Jason and I are remarkably similar, and they may be right: we look alike, have the same speech patterns and mannerisms, both work in the under-compensated middle of the Creative Class (I’m a writer; he’s a chef). As such, we function as a sort of control group with our children: we bring comparable influences to them, so it is interesting to note the ways in which they differ (yes, they do have mothers, these kids, and yes, they are influenced by their mothers, but come on, I’m making a rhetorical point here; it’s not a science project).

Perhaps the most striking difference between the kids demonstrates itself in the things they are willing or unwilling to do. My brother’s youngest, Georgia, is a classic daredevil younger child. Utterly without fear, she jumps, she climbs, she swims, she dismisses all attempts to be controlled. JP, for his part, does none of these things. He hates water, carefully looks (over and over) before he leaps, detests new things on principle, and, while not entirely obedient, shows more respect for authority than Georgia.

One thing Georgia isn’t much good at is walking. A two- or three-block jaunt is enough to prompt requests for a stroller. JP, meanwhile, stopped being carted around a good two years ago. He likes to make his own way, enjoys running out ahead of me, knows to stop for traffic at every corner, and holds my hand from choice, not necessity. He is a city boy: terrified of water but not headlong traffic.

There are more, and better, examples of how childhood in a big city like New York and a smaller one like St. Paul differ. But what I’m thinking of is the way that visits to the pleasant, cheap, reasonable, seemingly happy smaller cities of this country tend, on returning home, to provoke questions about why I choose to live here. Of course, I don’t really choose it: my ex-wife, JP’s mother, lives here, a mere three blocks from my apartment, we share custody, and there’s no leaving for us.

Not that I haven’t thought about it. My only family in New York is my father, who, while undoubtedly a loving grandfather, is a rather absent one. My mother, for example, who lives in Mississippi, sees her grandchildren as much or more than my father, who lives crosstown. Tomoko’s family is small and mostly in Japan. I left my job at Harper’s Magazine this past winter, and Tomoko, who works in advertising, is employable just about anywhere she would like to be. The baby is young, our ties to this place, but one, are minimal, and we are not so far gone in years as to be reluctant to strike out anew.

Who knows what the coming years will bring? I am 38. Ten years ago, I was living in State College, Pennsylvania, with my ex-wife, who was then my girlfriend. She was completing her doctorate, and I was busy writing a dreadful novel. I had just returned from three years abroad, in Asia, had no designs at working in journalism, or living in New York, or having children. Since then, I’ve lived in Los Angeles, gone to graduate school, worked in and then left journalism, returned, moved to New York, divorced, had two children. The distance between me then and now great enough to suggest that my future self might also be a radically re-imagined version of the present one. Or not. One definition of growing old would be standing by as things slow, opportunities dwindle, and then you, finally and perhaps without even noticing, just stop.

Boy, I need to go back on vacation.


  1. SCOTTSTEV says:

    July 5th, 2011at 11:19 am(#)

    Not to bring you further down, but I’ve found that the inertial lifestyle-lock effect increases dramatically once the kids begin elementary school. I have my oldest in a true neighborhood school. Almost all his classmates live within walking distance. Combined with his meeting kids in the general vicinity through soccer and day-care, he lives in an idyllic world where he will constantly run into acquaintances and playmates. Tearing him from that would be a significant sacrifice and would not be taken lightly. The more so, once his sister also starts school.

    I found that the one bittersweet part of conventional adulthood is the closing off of possibility. I really enjoy my life as it is, but daydreaming of packing it all in and starting over immediately starts the “well what would we do about…” The ideas get shot down before conception.

  2. dadwagon says:

    July 5th, 2011at 11:29 am(#)

    Thank you for ruining my already bleak day, Scottstev. I jest. –theodore.

  3. Marlena says:

    July 6th, 2011at 10:38 am(#)

    I now (happily) live in the Midwest, but spent years in New York – Huntington, UWS (P.S. 166!) – when I was little and it was the 80s and crack vials were on my playground. When I moved back to WI at the tender age of 10, man alive, was my life sucky. But those years living in The City, with a dad from the east coast, helped form me into a less-formed child. Sure, I didn’t know how to ride a bike or play soccer, but that’s just what made me a little more “me.”

    There is never anything to hold you back from living in NYC or St. Paul (well, their government might have a shut-down) or Kalamazoo except what you want to make you hold back. It would be sad for kids to move once in grade school, but it happens. And people tend to vacation in the opposite of their perceived living situation. In our small, liberalish hamlet, we like to head south to Chicago for Big City experiences. People who already live in big cities like to vacation in quiet, remote places. So you can have both halves. And you can raise your kids anywhere and still have them experience water, traffic, rampant advertising and nasaly regional accents.

  4. dadwagon says:

    July 6th, 2011at 10:40 am(#)

    Marlena–I would sat in my case, there is something holding me back: a custody agreement. Moving from NYC would mean moving without my son, and that’s not going to happen. But I appreciate, and in general, agree with your comment. –theodore.

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