Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets: if I could live anywhere (that actually exists)

>> Friday, June 17, 2011


No, wait, sorry, it's only Ask Standing On The Shoulders Of Giant Midgets and Scott wants to know:

If you could move anywhere (that actually exists!), where would it be and why?

Growing up in Charlotte, NC in the 1980s, it was an abysmal place. I don't think that was just me being depressed most of the time: Charlotte was a small town that became increasingly important as a banking center over the past several decades, and Charlotte "culture" was a straitlaced and tied-down affair. In those days the city shut down around five o'clock and downtown became a ghost town. UNC-Charlotte was a suitcase school in the suburbs and the other colleges and universities in the near area are small and/or even more remote. Big bands and traveling theatre productions hardly came through, local artists always seemed like they were one gasp from oblivion. This town was a horrid, antiseptic place and the last thing I ever imagined was that I would come back after I finished high school. I thought I'd go away, I thought I would be gone.

Which is why it surprises me that I'm a homeowner in Charlotte now. Things change--your life settles into a career that governs where and how you can live, for one thing; but as important is that Charlotte has changed a lot. There is a local culture, local artists, local restaurants, things to do. It's no New York or New Orleans or San Francisco or Chicago. It's not even Austin or Seattle or Nashville. But it's not as miserably unpleasant now as it was when I was a kid, and I don't mind living there at all.

But is there anywhere else--anywhere real--I'd rather live?

(I'm taking it for granted, I should say, that by "actually exists" we're talking not just about real places--as opposed to imaginary ones like The Shire or Naboo or Hogwarts, desirable residences, all--but real places that are currently accessible and livable. That is, if you asked me if I'd like to homestead on the slopes of Olympus Mons, a perfectly real place that actually exists, well, yeah. Who wouldn't? Sure, I've heard Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids, but that doesn't affect me--I don't have any. What would affect me is that there's no way out there plus the lack of food, water, shelter, and, uhm, what's that stuff that you breathe called again, oh yeah, air, as in, air with oxygen in it. As opposed to, you know, the thin wisp of unbreathable gas they call an atmosphere out that way. So, anyway, as much as I might want to live on Mars--or Titan, Ganymede, Europa, The Moon, etc.--it's not an option, right?)

This is actually a tougher question than you might think. Okay, so on the one hand, I like the things you get out of living in a big city: I like the music that comes through, I like the variety of restaurants; though I don't get out as much to museums or plays, I like having the opportunity to do those kinds of things. On the other hand, I don't necessarily mind small towns; indeed, one of my problems with city life is that I sometimes go through phases of agoraphobia or, really, ochlo- or demophobia--my problem isn't with open spaces but I frequently get nervous in crowds and at least once verged on, I think, an actual anxiety attack (oddly, this isn't a persistent thing nor is it something I invariably feel in a crowd, but it also isn't something that's been a one-off experience I can write off as an outlier). College towns can be an ideal mix of the small town sense of space and the city access to a varied life, but it depends on the college town.

Washington D.C. is one of my favorite cities, notwithstanding a certain truth to JFK's observation that it's a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency. (And I do love that line.) But would I want to live there? I'm not sure. I'd have to think about it.

Would I want to live somewhere crowded and bustling, like Chicago or New York? So many people, so many goddamn people.

And yet: there have been times I've wanted to live in the mountains of North Carolina, but it's a fine line between the sense of space and freedom you have up there in the clean air, living on granite, surrounded by trees--and an oppressive sense of isolation you feel when everything has become silent and still except for the low rumbling voice of the wind, a sense of menace as if the wild would just as soon have it that you weren't there at all, an intruder upon the mountains' ancient brows. I still love to visit and desperately need to get back to recharge, but could I stand month after month up there? I just don't know.

Here's the thing (maybe): I don't know that I like being around crowds of people, and yet I love what crowds of people bring: places full of music and lights and life, places where human things are happening, where humans are eating and singing and dancing and telling jokes and everything else humans do. I have a love/hate relationship with urban areas and a love/hate relationship with the country, feeling torn by what both kinds of space have to offer.

Which brings me back to the most surprising thing about where I ended up living, in spite of everything I intended when I was seventeen or eighteen.

I am within an hour-and-a-half's drive of the mountains, and a four-hour drive to the sea (for that matter). UNC-Charlotte is still on the periphery, but it's no longer quite as suburban. I live down the street from bars and restaurants and art shops, from an intersection that almost even shares a vibe with Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Downtown Charlotte no longer closes at 5 p.m., and while there's been a terrible fight lately over noise ordinances that could kill off any hope Charlotte pretends to have of ever being a "world-class city" (the great Charlotte fantasy/pretension), the trend seems to be away from the parochial, lights-out-at-dusk mindset that's prevailed over much of the town's history. Music and shows and things come to town, and some of the ones that don't come here still show up in Atlanta or Raleigh, cities that aren't any farther away than the ocean.

I.e. am I already where I'd want to live, if I could live anywhere?

I will joke, sometimes, that if I had a nickel for every time a client told me, "_______" (many things could go on that line), I'd be in a Swiss chalet; only I don't speak German nor Italian and my French is appalling and not up to conversation. Iceland looks like a neat place but the whole country, seems like, is a small town for good or ill. I love the English, but do I love England? Other way around for the French and France, and also that language thing again. Japan seems cool and the population density seems too high (and language). Actually, let's be honest: it would be easier to name countries that I haven't seen a picture or read a description and thought, "Boy, wouldn't be cool to live there!" Somalia is torn by war and much of the Middle East strikes me as being in thrall to some sort of misogynistic, nationalistic, theocratic mental illness. (Sorry. But yes, I went and said it. Maybe I'm a bigot for feeling that way, but one of the big news items today is that women in Saudi Arabia are engaging in a mass protest by driving cars, which is illegal in Saudi Arabia because... God says... women... something something. Plenty of fine individuals, but it's hard to make the case against mass insanity, bottom line.)

I'm checking them out, I'm checking them out. There's good points and bad points, I don't have it figured out.

But this is where I get hung up: seriously, would I want to live in any of these places. I mean permanently, as opposed to staying a few weeks or months and coming back.

You know, I fantasize sometimes about finishing a piece of writing and selling it (the latter being the essential part for this fantasy, though these days the former seems as far-fetched) and making a million dollars on movie rights or something. I realize, of course, that almost nobody makes a living just being a writer, not unless their last name is perhaps King or Rowling, but this is a fantasy. And in my fantasy I wonder if I would stay where I'm living now and just spend more time there, in the neighborhood, the neighborhood novelist, the local institution. And I confess I like that fantasy, I like that idea that I'm the local writer who lives modestly and is seen frequently in Boudreaux's or Smelly Cat, latest project on the netbook 'neath his arm. Does that seem overly banal or bland somehow? A million dollars isn't much money anymore, but you could live off it while you finished your next novel. You could pay your rent and dine out as much as you wanted, and travel a bit to all of the places you'd never been before coming home to the familiar 'hood.

Have I accidentally ended up living where I would move to if I could move anywhere? Is that a good thing or a distressingly small one?

I don't know if I've answered your question because I'm not sure if I can.

A housekeeping note: the next question in the stack, from Phiala, is a good one (as are the others in the queue and the ones that have already been answered), but I'm thinking I may post some filler this weekend and take up again with the Ask Giant Midgets feature on Monday, if that's alright with y'all. I hope it's alright, as it's what I sort of plan on doing.


John the Scientist Friday, June 17, 2011 at 11:07:00 PM EDT  

"much of the Middle East strikes me as being in thrall to some sort of misogynistic, nationalistic, theocratic mental illness."

Dude, I've been over there, and that thoight is largely correct. It's not bigoted to point out that women have to wear sheets outside in 100 degree heat and that seems somewhat, you know, wrong. I mean, do they love their mothers? Sisters? Daughters? At all?

Even in relatively liberal Amman, my female friends got ugly stares for wearing shorts in public.

To quote one Paki expatriate:

I know that I am not the only one who feels secure and lively after escaping the perilous existence of an underdeveloped Muslim country. The ghost of fascist Islam has followed to jeopardize my peace.

Phiala Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 11:38:00 AM EDT  

Oooh, I asked a good question! I suppose I can wait until next week to learn the answer...

I would never live in the Middle East. I'd end up in jail or dead.

I'd like to live in New Zealand, or northern Europe (but not the UK), but I don't know about permanently. A few years would be nice.

Being an academic, I've got a lot of experience with few years here, few years there sort of thing. I've been at Penn State since 2002, the longest I've lived anywhere since I moved out at 17. I own a house and like it here, but do sometimes think about moving.

I've never lived in the kind of city where you don't need a car, and would kind of like to try it. Not sure I would like it, but it would be interesting.

I do like living places with seasons, much as I complain about some of them while experiencing them. I spent four years in southern New Mexico: 350 sunny days a year. It gets boring after a while.

John the Scientist Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 3:12:00 PM EDT  

I have lived for 2 years in a country where you do not need a car, and I didn't miss it except in earthquake / tsunami drills. You feel naked and helpless when you have to depend on someone else for everything in an emergency. One reasons that, even if I lived in NY, I'd still own a car.

I think you'd like Japan, Eric. The frenetic feel you get from Western cameras eyeing places like Shibuya center or the Ginza is not the feel you get in the quieter neighborhoods. I lived in Shibuya Ward and it was nothing like the environs of Shibuya station.

The smaller cities outside Tokyo are great. For instance, Kawagoe is an awesome place. It's got an ancient city center, and excellent microbrewery, and is a 25 minute train ride from Shinjuku, the busiest trian station in Tokyo. There's something always happening becuase of the historical tourism, but once you walk outside the city center it begins to feel semi-rural. You could live on the outskirts of the city without a car with minor to no inconvenience.

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