Friday, February 27, 2009

On Grad Students, Briefly

So, take II of the 21st birthday is currently underway, in that many of my friends born after me are just now turning 21 (I am in the middle of a birthday surge, it's intense). This means that I suddenly have a whole new group of people to celebrate the cocktail hour with, which is great, but it also means that I am now forced to confront the sad existence of real collegiate bars. Oofta (a grad student tonight claimed to have known a Minnesotan who used 'Oofta' in place of expletives. I assured him that I did not know any such Minnesotans). Tonight, after class, I went out with a friend for a few beers to celebrate her 21st birthday. We ended up meeting with a group of grad students at a sad bar near campus- the kind of place with sticky tabletops, a snack menu and Third Eye Blind tracks that are impossible to talk over. The kind of place that accepts fake IDs and where anyone in business attire is hugely out of place, even scorned.

Us: Hello, grad students! What are you drinking? We point to pitchers of beer on table.
Grad Students: The cheapest beer on the menu. They smile as if they are proud of this and motion for us to join them, which we do.
Me: Oh… -I remove my jacket and sit down- That sounds... great.
The waiter brings more glasses to accommodate us. We drink the crappy beer because it’s there, not because we enjoy it.

Sure, I'm being harsh about their selection of beer, but really, there are plenty of reasons to complain about the grad students last night. For instance, grad students studying the arts- especially writing- are destined to be unhappy. They may be fantastic poets, but fact of the matter is that they’re 25 and still drinking cheap beer in sketchy bars on Thursday nights and talking about the economic advantages of vegetarianism because they're broke- perpetually- and don’t even realize that their lack of brokeness stems from the fact that they spend $30 every Thursday night on crappy beer and hormone slathered chicken fingers (CHICKEN FINGERS!). Grad students studying the arts are brassy- though only when intoxicated,- jaded and loud, otherwise they are unassuming and thrive on insecure eye contact, thinking it's attractively submissive and therefore somehow empowering. They wear nubby sweaters and smoke a lot of cigarettes (but won't eat meat- chicken fingers excluded- because it's bad for the body. Also, they don't seem to realize that cigarettes cost more money than a beer upgrade). They like to say mean things about their parents and like to remind you that you’re an undergraduate. They say things like, "Pay up, undergraduates!" Also, they seem to be an incestuous group. Whenever someone rises to leave the table they all huddle together and gossip about how X and Y made out last weekend and it was so intense because they both just got out of really long relationships. It's like 7th grade, with beer. Grad students studying the arts are ridiculous- I hope never to be one.

Friday, February 20, 2009

I like trading, not communism

I never see my roommate. He is always busy. I am always busy when he’s not busy. We’re so metropolitan, you know.
We’re looking for a new apartment, one with more space. I wonder why space is important though; neither of us has time to enjoy it. In fact, I’d be fine in a hovel.

There’s a place deep inside of me that longs for the simple life- for fresh eggs, the overwhelming smell of grass, the excitement that comes with the passing of a car- the luxury of forgetting that everyone else exists- for fresh produce, for sunburns and tired limbs. A part of me would love to have filthy children who know a ripe tomato when they see one, a house with ancient floorboards, the sanctity of empty space and a sky full of stars, but I know that I would quickly tire of such a life. I’m destined to live- just enough- for The City, to live just enough for the weekend.

Tonight, I traded my roommate two ripe bananas for two unripe bananas. Tomorrow I’m going to make banana nut muffins- my favorite! I hope that one day, my children will also like banana nut muffins. If they don’t, I’ll trade them for other children. Trading is wonderful.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Living Just Enough for the City

I tried to tell Lady Liberty that I could make it without her, without the ocean, the gridlock and the skyscrapers of eternal light. I told Lady Liberty that I could do it on my own, without the help of Wall Street, without the inspiration of Brooklyn and the raw kitsch of It All. But Lady Liberty, she’s a constant- her lights are always shining, her skyline hangs steady and her people somehow find time to recharge in the midst of everything happening around them. They get up each day to do it all again; it’s a self-feeding cycle, but it’s never exactly the same twice.
Lady Liberty laughed at me. “If you can’t make it here, babe, you can’t make it anywhere.”
“That’s not true!” I cried. “That’s not true at all.”
She raised her eyebrows at me, questioning my definition of making it. I pretended not to understand her point.
Lady Liberty issued a challenge. “I bet you can’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to make it here.”
I made a show of shaking my head: left to right, right to left. “That’s not true at all. I know I can make it here,” I told her. “It would be easy. Look at the man there, on the corner, the one in the suit. He’s done it. That woman selling falafel out of a van, she’s done it. That girl across the street, with the knobby knees and vacant eyes, she’s done it. If they can do it, so can I. I know it.”
“Prove it,” she taunted.
I looked at her like a child being asked to enter a dark cave in the dead of night. My voice faltered. “I can do it. I can…”
“Prove it,” she repeated. She looked down at me, her eyes stern. “Are you afraid?” she asked.
I nodded, meekly.
“You’re scared of me.”
“Then why are you afraid?”
“I’m afraid of what I want.” I regained my confidence in my earnestness, “I’m afraid of wanting to prove you wrong.”
She smiled because she knew she had won.

- - - - -

I’ve always spoken out against the rite of passage that is New York City. It’s silly to think that living there will somehow make anyone a more interesting person, a better artist, a harder worker. I know it’s ridiculous- to think that I could somehow become something tangible, someone who matters by moving there. But New York City has so much of what I want:

-Locally owned shops and restaurants
-The ability to walk everywhere
-Ethnic food- lots of it
-Communal insomnia
-Cheap cabs/ cabs that take credit cards
-Liberal guilt

But, if everyone who wants these things goes to New York City to find them, what will happen to the rest of the country? I never want to have to own a car again, but what if everyone who doesn’t want to own a car in Minnesota moves to a city with great pubic transportation? Where will the incentive be for the Twin Cities to get a better public transportation system? What if everyone who values great ethnic food moves to New York City? Who will eat ethnic food in Montana, Texas or Utah? Sure, my singular presence may not be important in the cultural direction of whatever city I end up living in, but it’s the cultural mindset that’s important.

Why is New York the bar of success? I’m not trying to undermine the influence of New York City, for it is awesome, but who’s to say that people aren’t doing interesting, creative, important work in Chicago, Baltimore, Boston and Portland?* Who’s to say the best publishing house in the country cannot operate out of a loft in St. Paul? Who’s to say that an influential writer has to live in Brooklyn? Why am I being goaded into the idea that moving to New York and doing well in The City will somehow translate into a successful life, as my professors and friends seem to insinuate?

Over the summer there was a super model from Eastern Europe (or somewhere) who killed herself. She lived in an expensive apartment on the tenth (or so) floor of some New York high rise and jumped to her death from the balcony. One of her friends, in response to her death, said something along the lines of, “I never thought she would do this. I thought she loved the city,” as if to say that New York City is some kind of metaphor for life. In my industry, it is. But what happens when the city dies?

Over the weekend I sat in front of the Stock Exchange and wondered for how much longer it will serve to represent hard work and the tireless spirit. One of the sculpted men on the top of the building is hunched under the burden of a heavy sack, and I wondered, when was the last time anyone currently working in that building labored under such a load? Maybe New York is out of touch with what it represents. Maybe what it represents is changing. Maybe the bar of success can be moved. Maybe I am just trying to talk myself out of moving further away (mentally, not physically) from my family, and maybe I'm secretly hoping I’ll be unsuccessful in doing so.

* These questions are purely rhetorical. I know that people across this great country, across the world, are doing things of huge significance. I am merely suggesting that we take extra care to understand them as artists, workers and people and not compare them unjustly to their peers in other parts of the country, for reasons that are purely geographical.