What is that Kid Thinking?

Outdoor refrigerationWith about a month before Lifelongnewyorker heads to Alabama, we decided that it was time to announce the move to the wider world of seldom-seen friends, acquaintances and relatives with whom we have yet to exchange e-mail addresses.  And what better way than via Christmas card?   So this year we ordered up more than usual, and had the following (more or less) printed inside:

We’ve made a few resolutions for 2010:

  1. Accept a new job (Lifelongnewyorker) 
  2. Retire (MrNYer) 
  3. Move to Montgomery, Alabama (both of us) 
  4. Stay in New York (Soon-to-be-Abandoned)

We added a few more details about timing, and gave our email addresses.  Cards in the mail, we congratulated ourselves on having now finally notified just about everyone we could think of who might care, and probably a few who might not.   We thought, too, that the announcement might possibly put some folks in touch and elicit some interesting reactions. 

My uncle, one of only two of my mother’s siblings still living, took the bait.  I’m told that he spoke to my sister first, wanting to know,  “What is that kid thinking!?”   As if I had announced a new hobby of wrestling with alligators or plans to vacation in Myanmar.

My sister helped smooth the conversation he had with me later that day by putting it all in a rational perspective.  It’s a great job, she told him.   They’ve thought about it a lot, she assured him.  Mr. NYer is indeed old enough to retire, she attested.  She even went above and beyond, creating a whole future  for Mr. NYer in which he devoted himself to nurturing his already-green thumb, got a job at a nursery, and became a master gardener.   Uncle Dyed-in-the-Wool NYer, a gardener himself, was slightly mollified.

By the time he called me, his tone was less incredulous and more, well avuncularly cautionary.  Not once did the words “crazy,” “nuts,” “lunatic,” or the phrase “take leave of your senses,” enter the conversation.  He allowed time for me to make my case and then, in a tone that was uncannily like my mother’s voice, said, “Well, if this is what you really want …”  

What could he do?  My mind was  set.  Crazy kids.

I’ve gotten similar reactions from others who have a hard time seeing me in the South.  Or perhaps anywhere but in New York.  Some have urged me to learn to speak more slowly, and less directly.  Several have advised me to rent a place for a year, not to rush to buy, “because , you know, it might not work out.” 

Here’s the question:  Is this reaction more about me, or about the place I’m going?  Maybe my uncle is remembering that I was the kid who suffered from such profound homesickness anytime I went to spend a week with cousins that my mother would have to come rescue me by the third day.  Repeatedly.  But that doesn’t explain the reaction of others.  What’s that about?  Do they think I’m inflexible, brash, intense, loud and too pushy for life outside the New York bubble? 

I got some insight when I posted this picture on Facebook yesterday.  It’s the scene right outside my kitchen door  on Christmas Eve.   Like most people who experience real winter, I’ve always relied on the cold to provide extra refrigeration when needed.  Cooking lots of fish?   What better way to make room in the refrigerator than to stick the beer, wine and crab sauce in the snow.  But yesterday, after doing what I’ve done for years, I looked  down and realized that this was not going to be an option in Alabama.  And then I realized why all the kitchens I’d seen in the Alabama houses I’ve been looking at online have such HUGE refrigerators.  They don’t have the outdoor spill-over space.  So I posted the picture and updated my status:  Sudden realization.  I will need a bigger refrigerator in Alabama.

Along came comments about the recent arrival of “e-lek-tricity” and keeping ice boxes on  the porch. (Oddly, no root cellar jokes.) And then it clicked:  Like me, most of the people I know have  no idea what life is like outside New York and a few other places, like Florida.  What they know about Alabama is drawn from movies, television, country music, redneck jokes, and black & white footage of civil rights scenes from the 1960s.  It’s a stereotype, just like New York is a stereotype for people who have never lived here.  

I don’t know exactly what life will be like in Montgomery.  I imagine it will be different in many ways, and similar in others.  It will be unfamiliar, but I’m looking forward to the cognitive dissonance.  I love the idea of suddenly seeing things from an entirely different perspective.  I liked looking at the stuff sitting in my snow and coming to the realization that that’s not the way it is everywhere.  I’m looking forward to seeing lots of things with new eyes.   And yes, sometimes  that difference will most likely be mystifying, frustrating, and possibly disorienting.  I won’t know all the rules of behavior.  I won’t recognize all the produce in the supermarket.  I may not understand the allure of red velvet cake.   But I don’t labor under the delusion that New York’s ways define the norm, or that everything is measured against  New York’s standards.   

My father used to tell the story of serving in the army during World War II with a fellow New Yorker, a real blowhard, as my father saw it.  This guy, a “working stiff,” never stopped bragging and letting the poor GIs from Kansas or Texas know that nothing they had could compare to life in the big city, with its shows, lights and fancy night clubs.  Dad would listen to this for as long as he could stand, and then ask the guy to tell about the nightclubs he frequented.  The guy never left the Bronx, as Dad knew, and the question usually silenced him for a time.   

I won’t be that guy.  It’s true that New York is amazing; it’s singular, not like any place else in the world.  But it’s not the be-all-and-end-all of life.  I’ve long held that every American should try to live in New York for a while, preferably when they’re young.  A corollary to this rule is my belief, too, that lifelong New Yorkers should, at some point in their lives, live someplace else.  Call it a reality check.