Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 6, 2009

Between Mountain and Manhattan

      I am a man pulled in too many directions, strung up between the not enough and the too much. For instance, when I think of my ideal living environments , I suffer the push of the mountain and the pull of Manhattan (both of which coincidentally begin with “m” and end in “n”).

But where do I actually live? In the sleepy middle class suburbs, in the noncommittal Midwest, in all those comfortable but non-extravagant American in-between spaces. What’s worse, I valiantly try (and often fail) to occupy the mundane roles that, rather than being colorful or important themselves, instead connect the more dramatic places and people to each other.

There are too many days in which I just plain don’t like my life. In my head, the place I’ve chosen to live, and my stagnant career (such as it is) represent a major part of that. I’m not saying it’s good that I don’t like my life. And I’m also aware that most people feel at least a little trapped in some parts of their daily lives, taking on roles or living in places where they feel uneasy or abnormal. Nevertheless, I’m just saying, I don’t like this in-between existence. I want my mountains!


To clarify, when I say “mountain”, I’m using the word to signify the undeveloped wilderness, wherever it may be found. These are for me the “blank canvas” spaces, whether they be rural prairies, lake-studded moraines and hills, deserts, deep woods, or actual mountain ranges. And I know I am romanticizing these rugged locations, that an entire life lived there could actually be hardscrabble (such a great word) and meagre. Nevertheless, it’s my poetic fantasy, so please leave me to it for awhile.


I saw a male redwinged blackbird in our yard last week, like an emissary from the outlands, come to visit. They’re uncommon in this part of the close-in suburbs of Chicago. Maybe he was attracted by the swamp that our shady, patchy backyard lawn becomes each spring (this year worse than ever). We’re blessed enough to own a lake cottage in rural Wisconsin. Therefore I’ve gotten used to the redwing’s obnoxious call, since a pair is always nesting in the reeds on the edge of our property (or maybe it’s their property, and we’re just the tenants/tourists).

But seeing that redwing here in Skokie saddened me a little. I’m not sure why. Maybe because, being a bit out of its element (the species prefers prairies and natural bodies of water to well-lit residential neighborhoods and trimmed shrubbery), it reminded me how out of place I often feel here, in this strange, crowded, multi-ethnic Chicago suburb that is neither Mountain nor Manhattan.

(Speaking of capital M “Mountain”, Mountain View is the name of a really great, off-the-beaten-track Arkansas town, in the southern Ozark Mountains near Blanchard Springs Caverns. It’s there that they hold a nice folk/bluegrass music festival  every spring, plus other year-round music, motorcycle, and sundry “country” type events that represent for me the idyllic rural American experience. Check it out if you can.)


In the mountains and wilderness, life is necessarily simple and often breathtakingly beautiful. Maybe the attraction, for me, is that I have more than enough complications bouncing around on my insides. Thus my desire for exterior simplicity, even starkness and silence: to counteract and subdue the inner racket of my A.D.D. mind and faithless gypsy heart. A mountain (or a large lake, a secluded forest, an arid desert) helps one to stay “grounded”, a concept of increasing importance to me these days.


Which doesn’t really explain why I also crave the bustling, crazymaking, expensive lifestyle one generally associates with Manhattan. But the culture vulture side of me holds a lot of interior territory, also. I am a self-conscious and avowed intellectual, of which there are many in the cities, and typically very few among the “common sense” country folk. As for the more pop-culture-minded suburbanites, many wouldn’t know a poetry slam if one set up shop in their own carefully maintained garages. So if I want to feel the thrill of discovering a new art gallery, eating authentic Turkish or Thai cuisine, or hearing live jazz music played by an orthodontist/saxophone player, it will probably be smart to stick closer to the city.


And when it comes to my ambitions in the realm of writing and publishing, Manhattan has always represented the cream of the crop. In reading Kathleen Norris’ memoir of her 1970s New York years (The Virgin of Bennington, which I just completed today), I caught a thrilling –if slightly dated– glimpse of what it would be like to be an artist on the rise, supported by many likeminded people, coming into one’s own and fulfilling a deep sense of purpose. So some of my Manhattan fascination may be elitism, or hero worship of the Walt Whitmans and Gerard Malangas (both mentioned by Norris), or the Bob Dylans, and Jack Kerouacs of a bygone era.

But the legitimate part of my longings and perceptions, the very real opportunities and networking that a city has to offer, that too is like a “city on a hill” for me. I have only looked at it from miles away, so far.

Whether it’s true, or just a fallacy, many of the ways in which I still feel like an amateur, an outsider, a pretender –all these angry and self-defeating aspects of my shoddy self-image — these all get mixed up in my mind with the demands of family, lawn care, church, arranging for a piano tuner and supervising my son’s piano lessons, or whatever other parts of my suburban life make me feel stuck. With the conventional but good-intentioned Joneses needing me to coach Little League (I like doing it… don’t get me wrong), it seems I lack the time, or the “exposure” opportunities, or the basic encouragement to “go for it” on the grand Manhattan-sized scale that I aspire to achieve.

If only I were single, I tell myself. But then again, I do really love my family. Then let’s try this:  if only I were twenty years younger, or lived in Lincoln Park, or Greenwich Village, or could move to our country retreat in Wild Rose, Wisconsin full-time… THEN I would love my life. If only, if only, if only… Oh shuddup, will ya! I’m tired of hearing myself whine.

And yet, I whine on…

I am not a writer. Not really a teacher, either. (Though I play one part-time, in a college classroom a couple days a week, and I’m concerned everyone will find out how much I’m “faking it”.) I’m a housewife… with a cleaning lady, no less. So what am I supposed to be doing with myself, instead of living in this ridiculous space halfway between Mountain and Manhattan?


That’s all overstating the case, I know. But it’s how I feel. I want to BE somewhere else, whether that’s in another physical place or another set of spiritual, career and lifestyle choices.

Writers and wise teachers come from or go off to the woods and farms like Thoreau, Faulkner or Wendell Berry. They live in tiny, character-filled Southern burgs like Flannery O’Connor’s Milledgeville, Georgia or even John Grisham and Anne Rice’s Louisiana. In other parts of the world, they live in rural Italy, like St. Francis. Or Paris (the Manhattan of Europe). Or Tokyo, the setting of some of my favorite cyberpunk novels by William Gibson. Or they’re from somewhere on the fringe of both urban and wilderness existence , like Douglas “Generation X” Coupland from Vancouver, Larry McMurtry in Texas, or T.C. Boyle in Santa Barbara, CA. Or if they’re middle class and suburban, they somehow learned to make the suburbs sing, like John Updike did. Or they went off to see the world, like Vietnam vet Tim O’Brien, Bill Bryson, Paul Theroux and, before them, Hemingway. Or else they chose to occupy the metropolis in all its potential harshness and complexity, matching the beat of their heart to the city’s heart, like Dorothy Day, Jay McInerney, Salman Rushdie or Anne Lamott out in Frisco (Manhattan of the West).


But not me. I’m from Skokie. Well, not originally. Skokie’s too interesting to make my point (click for news on our new Holocaust museum). I’m a transplant. Before this, growing up, I lived in Bloomingdale, Illinois. (Where my 30-year junior high reunion is happening this week… not that I have much to be proud of in catching up and comparing lives with old acquaintances.)  Has there ever been a more conventionally suburban name than Bloomingdale? I doubt it.

I’d rather be on the street outside the original Bloomingdale’s department store in Manhattan, with a microphone and a P.A. system, ranting at passersby about the screwed-up state of the world. Or on that famous mountain in Judea, listening to Jesus remind us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

But, lacking those opportunities, instead I wander out into the bustling wilderness of the internet… and I whine…


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