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.