The Art in Settling


The year has started to settle.

I don’t mean 2014 (though, that, too). Rather, I’m referring to my year in Boston. I’m almost 5 months into it, just over 7 months until I make that auspicious final move to New York City, and the freshness of the new city has been supplanted by my familiarity with this temporary home. I know the landscape, I know the people, I have patterns and regular spots and memories of New Orleans are already fermenting into nostalgia.

There’s still so much that I haven’t done or seen in this city, so much that I’ll never get around to doing or seeing. There are the museums that I haven’t visited, and the bars in Southie that I’ve yet to venture into. I still want to go to a Celtics game, and a Red Sox game for that matter. I hope to take a day trip up to Maine and finally touch the one corner of the country I haven’t reached (not counting Alaska and Hawaii, which I’ll get to. Eventually). But I’d like to think I’ve made a pretty good go of it so far.

The 5 month mark in each year isn’t necessarily notable, though it was around this time in my year in San Francisco that I finally found a job after desperate, fruitless months of searching. It was also this time last year when I moved out of my first place in the St. Roch neighborhood of NOLA to a better apartment (and living situation) in Mid-City. Other than that, though, 5 months is just another arbitrary division of time, not quite halfway through, not even a clean divisor of a year.

And yet, 5 months does feel like an important junction in the year. The first couple months are full of exploration, which is then replaced by those frenzied, interminable weeks collective given the doublespeak designation, ‘The Holidays’. It’s only at the end of January that life begins to feel “normal.” It’s too early to start planning my move, but I’ve got enough time behind me that Boston doesn’t feel like a ‘new’ city, just my city. Generally, January and February are my least favorite months of the year, what with their bleak, gray weather and monotonous run of weeks with nothing to differentiate one day from another (Valentine’s Day doesn’t count; period). I wonder, though, if this settled feeling isn’t also a factor.

My entire life revolves around change, but right smack in the middle of my year is this period of stasis.

Of course, I could take a trip somewhere (well, another trip), but that would undermine the heart of this project. If I left my current city every time I got bored, I’d be missing out on real city habitation, the day-to-day that defines the way people actually live. If 10 Cities / 10 Years is a story about how people live in their cities (specifically, how they navigate their 20s in the city), I can’t very well hang around for the peaks and dip out during the troughs. Life can be spectacularly fun, but it also can be relentlessly dull, and while that might not sound like great fodder for art, the contrast provides depth to the story. All of our stories.

So, I’m settling in for the time being. February will feel like a slog, but then suddenly it’ll be springtime and NYC will be visible on the horizon (along with the existential crisis that will mark the end of this project). I’m here now, though, and on occasion it’s good to slow down. Idiot.

My Twenties


I turn 30 this year.

Such milestones inspire retrospection, a look back on the decade that was and contemplation of the decade that will be. What have I accomplished in my twenties, and what will I accomplish beyond them? What did I fail to achieve, and will those achievements remain out of reach?

When measured against my literary heroes and influences, it’s hard not to feel the burden of time. After graduating from college, I gave myself two years to publish my first novel to be on track with F. Scott Fitzgerald, who published This Side of Paradise at the remarkable age of 24. Well, my 24th year came and went, followed by 25, 26 and so on through my twenties without a published novel to my name, let alone a work that would elevate my name among the Promising Young Novelists.

Though I have a few publishing credits to my name, a smattering of short writings does not a career make.

It would be easy to see the impending mile marker of my life as a monument to unfulfilled promise. When comparing myself to artists both living and dead, it requires little effort to find examples of those whose output by my age eclipses mine. I will never ‘catch’ Fitzgerald, though my ambition to write at least one Literary Classic hasn’t abated. If one’s goal is to join the storied lineage of the great novelists, it helps to know one’s forebears. But such knowledge can be as burdensome as it is enlightening.

On the cusp of a new decade, I’m learning to not spend so much energy comparing my achievements with those of other writers and artists. It’s a fatal mistake to willfully live in the shadow of another. I have followed my own path, and my twenties have been as uniquely crafted as any literary work.

Two weeks after graduating, I moved across the country and began a journey that would evolve into 10 Cities / 10 Years, a travelogue as much about exploring my twenties as it is about exploring America. Now having spent more than seven and a half years living in a new city every year, I am a mere two cities (Boston, NYC) short of fulfilling my decade-long goal. This project has fully shaped the third decade of my life and when I reexamine this decade I can only hope it will be with a sense of accomplishment. 10 Cities / 10 Years may be nothing more than a gimmick I attempt to ride it to a career, but the project is also an earnest endeavor to write a definitive (albeit idiosyncratic) account of vicenarian life in America in the new century.

When all is said and done, my twenties will almost certainly turn out to have been both the most difficult and the most rewarding decade of my life. I doubt I am alone. It is, after all, the period of our lives most ripe for change and discovery.

The 20th century relegated the twentysomething population to careers in specific fields with defined expectations. Times are changing, though, and my generation (and younger) are looking for fresh careers, often creating them from scratch where before no such opportunities had existed. Just as the business world adapts, so must the artist. We set out upon new frontiers, with no guarantee that financial or artistic success awaits us.

In the 21st century, the artist’s greatest struggle is setting him or herself apart from the pact in a society where every wannabe critic can look online for someone who did it ‘first’ or ‘better.’ An Italian painter in the 17th century didn’t have to worry that a contemporary in another region of Europe (or even his own country) was creating work in the same style and with the same subject. But today, an artist in any medium is immediately shouldered with comparisons and once those associations stick they’re nearly impossible to shake.

This is the burden of living in the interconnected century. The internet is a wonderful tool for exposing us to new art and ideas and bringing niche works to a larger audience, but just as technology expands the world for the consumer, it diminishes it for the artist.

What is a young artist to do?

One can only hope to make an impression, but what does that require in this modern consumer culture? The demand for sensationalism grows and while this hunger for the execrable is nothing new (let us not forget people used to watch lynchings), it is a commercial impulse that can undermine creative integrity. You may have inside you a truly unique, personal work of romantic fiction, but suddenly the big money is in flaccid S&M erotica for the easily titillated. It sure is tempting to chase after the zeitgeist.

An artist’s mission should be to redefine the zeitgeist, to undermine it and push it in a new direction. It’s not possible for every writer, photographer, musician, painter or what-have-you to achieve such lofty heights, but the pursuit is what sets the artists apart from the hacks, those just seeking to cash in. I may succeed in my ambition for literary relevance, or I might not, but I’m hot in pursuit.

Art or commerce is the defining choice of our twenties.

I spent the first half of my twenties pursuing Fitzgerald’s legacy. Now, on the verge of a new decade of my life, the only legacy I’m concerned with is my own. What I accomplish will be the result of talent and persistence with a healthy dose of pure damn luck.

Which, as it so happens, are exactly the elements it took to survive my twenties.

Self Cliche

10 Cities / 9 Years


If we count the summer I spent in Washington D.C. and my last year of college in Lawrence (not to mention my entire childhood in Kansas), it’s accurate to say that I have lived in 10 cities in 9 years. That is, I have had employment, paid rent on an apartment and explored the environment of 10 different cities in less than a decade.

I don’t imagine this to be an unprecedented feat. In the process of my 10 Cities Project, I’ve met plenty of travelers (or been contacted by them) and I’ve heard of people living in 20 cities in as many years or having moved into a dozen different apartments in five years, or some such variety of transitory existence. I can’t say for sure that there are more people living the gypsy life than there were in generations past, but because of the proliferation of travel blogs (travelblogs?), the vagabond lifestyle is no longer so exotic. Whether someone is reading up on how it’s done or just interested in living vicariously through another person’s travels, the internet provides a window into new worlds.

As a traditional travelogue, I have to admit that 10 Cities / 10 Years is a colossal failure. I provide a few travel tips and I try to pepper my philosophical musings with funny anecdotes, but anyone who was hoping to get snappy summaries of The Best Bars for Hanging Out or Off The Beaten Path Diners in any given city will be sourly disappointed.

Traveling is part of what I do, but it’s more the medium and less the message. If all I was concerned with was living in 10 different cities, well, my journey would be over this year. I could settle down, buy a rocking chair, get down to whittling full-time.

’10 Cities’ is a goal, but it’s only half the goal. ’10 Years’ is just as important in the equation.

A decade is an essential timespan by which we measure our lives. It’s more substantial than a year – a flash in which not much may happen – yet it’s still contained enough to be considered a distinct interval of our lives. Your teens, your twenties, your thirties, these are all periods that, when they end, feel cohesive, as if it all fits into one consistent narrative. That cohesion may partially be a fiction created out of skewed perception and distorted memories, but that could be said of all of life, so why nitpick?

I am less than half a year away from exiting my twenties, and while I’m sure that occasion will be weighted with its share of nostalgia for the past and apprehension for the unknowable future, I can’t help but think that this 10-year marker will pail in comparison to the one I hit when I’m in New York City and I’ve finally achieved 10 cities in 10 years.

If 10 Cities / 10 Years is a travelogue, it’s only in the sense that we all travel, figuring out life’s best hang outs and traversing paths less taken. Some nights we have wild, ill-conceived adventures, while others we quietly take stock of where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going.

I’ve made it through 10 cities, but my story isn’t done yet.