it takes a city

acs_2435In “The Case for Raising Kids in the City,” published last fall, Vox co-founder Matthew Yglesias argues that while America’s major cities have developed a reputation as playgrounds for the young and unattached, they have plenty to offer families with children. 

I wanted to clap when I finished reading his persuasive list. We’re not in America, of course, and some of the economic factors and social ideals are a little different, but much of what Yglesias says transfers just fine to a vibrant European city like Lyon.

It’s all uncharted territory for me–the raising kids part and the city part–and it was inspiring to read that these two things might go together just fine. Yglesias writes:

Virtually anything you could say on behalf of city-living as a strategy for a fun-loving single 20-something also applies to life as a boring dad in his late thirties, as an excitable 4-year-old, or as a teenager. If you like walkable neighborhoods; “third spaces” that aren’t shopping malls; cultural amenities; short commutes; and non-chain restaurants, then America’s cities are where those things are found.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

I grew up among the flat expanses of the Midwest. As a teenager, I noticed the lack of third places in the community for people my age, though I didn’t know there was a term for it. My friends and I just complained there was nothing to do. Teenagers drove to the historic town square, sat on the tailgate of someone’s truck and presumably drank beer. That didn’t hold any appeal for me, nor did pacing the aisles of Wal-Mart, the other popular way to pass the time.

Third places are those social oases separate from the first main social environment, home, and the second, the workplace. Sociologist Ray Oldenburg wrote that these places restore us, support us, make us happy. In France, tabacs and cafés function as a third place. In England, pubs often play this role. In small-town America, the third place could be the donut shop, bowling alley, barbershop, or the local Elks Club.

The youth, however, don’t have many choices. I craved somewhere I could go just hang out; make a private phone call away from my family. Somewhere I could talk if I wanted to or just read and write when I didn’t. A low-pressure environment to chat and get to know people in a way that whispering during a biology lecture didn’t allow for.

By the time I got to college, I was starving for third places and spent much of my time in them. One of my favorites was the hybrid of a café, bar, indie cinema, and record store. There were always grad students writing, professors having lunch, and people leaving the theater area to stop at the bar for a glass of wine. I’d meet with friends purposefully, or run into people I knew by chance. Either way, it felt like a home, and I was often more comfortable at places like this–alone but not–than at my actual home with roommates.

Third places seem like the kind of thing that will be important for parenting life, too. I don’t know what or where they’ll be, yet, but I like knowing that an abundance of these places exists here, and as Yglesias puts it, they’re not all shopping malls.

I’m interested in how my daughter’s experience with urbanity will differ from my own. The way she’ll play in a park instead of in a huge backyard with hay bales. The way we’ll walk and take public transit instead of driving the ubiquitous minivan around town. Even silly things, like the way elevators–which can hold a hint of glamor for the rural child–will be so totally commonplace.

Into my twenties, I found cities intimidating, intriguing, and somewhat unaccessible. I remember my first trip to a big city when I was old enough to appreciate it. Paris, when I was 16. The main disappointing takeaway was that my year of French didn’t come close to translating. I was irrevocably American.

At the same time, I couldn’t suppress the glee when I saw things as banal as taxis and pigeons. It was all so cinematic, so foreign, and not just because we were in France, where the voltage fried my hair straightener and the hotel breakfast included cute little packets of Nutella. No, more than the French-ness, it was the noise, the rush of people, the dizzying traffic, all so new. New, too, this strange feeling of anonymity.

It took me years to feel really at ease among the frenzied choreography of a city. Depending upon how long we stay and where we go next, this will be Clara’s normal: dodging Vespas, navigating the metro with ease, attending public culture events, hearing the music of multiple languages. I like this for her, that she’ll likely be braver than me. Maybe she won’t spend all her time wondering at “the real world” glimpsed in books and movies, because it will seem like she already lives there. She’ll be acquainted with people from many countries and backgrounds. Her library will include both Petit Ours Brun and Curious George. She’ll have two lexicons available when expressing herself. She might be one of those little kids who likes Camembert.

It fascinates me, how different our stories will be. I chose this cross-cultural life that she inherited. I wonder what kind of marks a place leaves on a person, if the rural-ness of my upbringing forever differentiates me in some way. I wonder if Clara, too, will crave to make a home somewhere far away, or if she’ll feel right at home where she is. 

“make no little plans”: in chicago, the road trip begins

When Victor came to visit for two weeks in July, our travel plans were quite literally a rough sketch. The napkin on which I had scribbled ideas during a phone call became the backbone of our road trip.

As the day of Victor’s flight approached, we had little more than city names, a few reserved AirBnbs, and a lot of anticipation.

Trepidation, too. Victor, aviation enthusiast, happens to hate flying. Cold sweat, shaking hands, “I need a cigarette” kind of fear. This Boeing 747-8 would be the biggest plane he’d ever taken. It would be his longest flight to date and his first time in the United States.

I was anxious too–seeking job opportunities with no answers; hoping with all I had that our young relationship would translate from Facetime back into real time after a month apart.

We met in Chicago at the airport. I called him: I’m in your terminal, next to the McDonald’s. Welcome to the USA.

Despite his rumpled, post-flight appearance–expression equal parts fatigue and joy–Victor had that shimmering quality to be found in loved ones you haven’t seen for awhile. Be it friendship or romance, you can’t stop staring. A state of happy shock: it’s the one you love, no longer tinny-voiced, pixelated, stuffed into a screen. The heart rejoices, always with some degree of relief. They’re real. I knew it. The anxiety of absence dissipates instantly like they never left, or you never did.

We proceeded to the rental agency to pick up our noble white steed for the duration of the trip: a little Mustang convertible. Despite having just staggered off the plane, Victor drove us into the city. It was too hot to have the top down, but we did anyway, shouting over wind and music. Semi trucks and billboards didn’t make for the prettiest tableau, but something about it felt exotic to Victor. I just can’t believe I’m here, he kept saying. J’arrive pas à le croire. It’s just like a movie.

When the smoky skyline popped into view, I took a picture for him, which I would do for much of the trip as co-pilot. The green-and-white signs announcing nearby cities, signs warning to watch for Amish horse-and-buggies, a fleet of police officers on Harley Davidsons…all of it was fair game.

In Chicago I pointed out the Midwestern friendliness I find striking for such a big city. We were unabashed tourists–posing with the Bean, taking the riverboat architectural tour to learn what percentage of Chicago burned to the ground in 1871, riding a wheezing double-decker bus in a lurching path around the city.

We ate hotdogs with mustard and drank huge lemonades from the stands by the lake. In an attempt to show Victor American breakfast culture, I took him to a donut place where we ordered chocolate pastries the size of our heads. He gawked at the deep-dish pizza at Giordano’s.

It felt appropriate to introduce Victor to my country with such a city. A big one. With tall buildings and endless pizza and a lake you could mistake for a sea.

Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and our grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

-architect Daniel Hudson Burnham (1846-1912)

flyover country


I remember reading once that there is more life in a one-square-foot patch of earth than in an entire city block. I may be off on the specifics. The point is just how much life there is–from microscopic to tiny–everywhere you go. The point is what you can see when you stop and look. I remember being floored by that colorful fact, probably encountered in National Geographic Kids, and crouching in the grass for several minutes. Sure enough, there were more bugs than I knew how to name. Everything was moving, when you really looked at it. Everywhere things were crawling and seething and hiding.

I’ve had lots of time to look, home in Missouri, waiting on paperwork to process for a teaching job in France. My room overlooks fields, a garden, a lawn of browning grass. I count the surprises viewable from the windows: Deer in the field. A sudden rainstorm, sweeping in with bruise-colored clouds. A few bats in frenetic flight, just blacker than the matte night sky. The wind carving paths through the knee-high soybeans. ACS_1184 2

It’s less than exhilarating, my existence here. Friends have moved on, to engagements and new cities. My old jobs are positively vintage, inaccessible: I spent sweaty afternoons at the local pool completing the teenage rite-of-passage known as lifeguarding. What’s left is family and this old house where each creak of the floorboards is familiar.

In a world so full of noise, this kind of quiet feels almost radical. In a time of life where I am expected to be always striving, always carpe diem, this time to just be feels like a revelation. It affords the kind of clarity that I realize comes from simply paying attention to things.

For maybe the first time, slowing down hasn’t tortured me, overwhelmed me with immediate existential crises or urges to make unwise impulsive decisions. Free from the childhood distractions of summer camp and swim team and general growing up, I have a whole lotta time to think. It’s not so bad once you get used to it.

Plus, there’s more time to read. I’ve been enjoying what I think of as “rural novels” or “Midwest novels,” marked for me by a matter-of-fact tone, no artifice. Characters largely stay put, but compensate for a lack of mobility with rich appreciation and description of their surroundings. Two such examples are Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-winning Gilead and companion novel Home. These novels follow two aging Iowan pastors and their families in rural Gilead in the fifties. The books are subtle and true, imbued with melancholy and sunlight. Robinson manages to write about faith and family without bowing to the sentimental. These books are slow, meditative. Not at all boring. This time at home feels like that.

All this practice slowing down–like a temporary life of retirement at 24–had me eager for the road trip I took in July with Victor. We saw a lot and just like with that fabled square-foot of earth, it brought me to a few realizations. First, once again, this earth is teeming with life. There are stories and things of interest everywhere, often very subtle. Everywhere were curiosities. Even at the rest stops. Even in the odd ghost town in Arkansas. Just a matter of paying attention. ACS_1185

Second was the melancholy acknowledgement that I will never see everything, know everything. The more I learn, the more I am humbled by all there is to know. Our trip made me think, and say: I know nothing. Or very little. 

It reminds me of when I was 15, working on Rosetta Stone French, able to recite a few phrases from memory. A friend asked me, without irony, “so are you like fluent now?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty close,” I responded. It would be years before the assertion of fluency was accurate. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I feel that now, just with life. A full acknowledgement of how small I am, now that the sparkle and arrogance of the college days has faded. Time felt endless. Now it doesn’t. The reality paralyzes for awhile, and then you move forward, conscious of your place. I am, I think, a raindrop in a sea.

Home is where you go to entertain these true, hard thoughts. Absence of distraction. Marilynne Robinson wrote “Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?”

On the road trip, there is again much time to think. Companionable quiet as we drive, all corn fields and cloudless skies. I become well-acquainted with the right side of Victor’s face. I grit my teeth when semi-trucks seem not to see us or when a storm rolls in and slicks the highway. I am scared of car wrecks. Not in any inhibiting way, just with an acknowledgement that floats hazy on the edge of my consciousness. It’s such a common way to die. Every time we leave the house we surrender to the possibility of falling victim to another person’s inattention. I’m surprised we don’t consider it quite a bit more often, our own mortality.