31 October 2022

Grounding Through Maps

Assembling maps of places I've lived - to build a reflection.

I’ve had the good fortune to live in a lot of neat places. Dallas now, Chicago, Providence, Western Massachusetts and also Kyoto and Tokyo in Japan when I was younger.

Maybe it is all the political divisiveness, maybe it is not feeling like I fit in well in Texas, maybe it is just a mid life crisis, but I’ve really been enjoying spending some time thinking about this.

Where am I from?

It feels a lot like part of the answer to:

Who am I?

On a bit of a whim, I purchased maps from these places and I’m in the process of hanging them in my office. The process has been cathartic.

Artistic Challenges

There was a bit of an artistic hurdle to get over with some of the maps. Specifically, there were at least three confounding factors:

  • I wanted beautiful maps.
  • I wanted detailed maps.
  • I wanted very specific locations.

It turns out it is not always easy to find these things in maps you can buy on Amazon or even Etsy.

I ended using OpenStreatMap, zooming to the level I wanted and then adjusting the filters to show or hide the features I wanted. What I came up with below had what I was aiming for, the right combination of natural features and earth colors, together with street detail but in softer colors (not black ink) that let the natural features jump out while allowing me to look closely and see minute detail - enough to even be able to mark out the houses where my close friends lived!

Maps

I printed this map in a large size and it is letting me keep this small town of Northampton in my mind as I work, exercise and play in my office.

Things I Learned In Different Places

As I’ve been doing this, different highlights from these periods come to mind and jump out and I thought it might be interesting to capture some of them.

Northampton

For me, growing up in a smaller town where I knew a lot of people, there was a strong community spirit and where there were still interesting currents of art, food and music was a privilege.

Sometimes I tell people Northampton was a great place to grow up because I had the run of the place but there really wasn’t a whole lot of trouble to get into. (Deep dark secret, I was a good wholesome kid, so I’m sure there was more than I imagined)

I spent a lot of time outdoors. I did a lot of good old fashioned work there. I participated in political protests and learned about challenges of race and class. The college brought great music and people with money to spend on food.

Northampton also has its share of history, highlighted by Jonathan Edwards, Shays’ Rebellion, Smith College, Sojourner Truth and a transcendentalist utopian community of abolitionist movement working for “equality without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion.”

When I was in High School, some pulp news magazine highlighted Northampton as “The Town Where Men Aren’t Wanted” - which is a humorous overreaction to a place with an active lesbian community. Apparently by some measures Northampton is the most liberal small/medium town in the country!

Looking at the map of Northampton, it feels so small. I could bike to every end of the the place. I walked to school. Everyday things like the High School, different parks, the places I spent huge amounts of time hanging out jump out at me. I have also noticed that the map helps me remember the major streets, which come up when I get updates from home. Otherwise, I might forget the ones I used less frequently including Bridge Road, Spring Street and so on. I also notice the large Fitzgerald Lake conservation area where I used to hike, mountain bike, canoe and camp. Not to mention the Mill River which was the scene of many a happy high school afternoon.

I still kind of think of Northampton as home. When I was recently there, the leaves were changing and the spectacular colors foreshadowed the cold winter to come. The natural progression of the seasons resonates for me even as I enjoy year round warm weather in my new home.

Kyoto

Living in Japan as a young teenager was a wild experience. I’m sure there are ways that it was not the most different place from Northampton imaginable, but it was pretty darn different!

I went to Junior High School in an all Japanese school. I was the only non-Japanese person at the school. The first day I almost got into a fight as some kid danced around me outside and I felt ostracized. I learned so much Japanese so fast it almost feels unfair. I still understood very little.

Kyoto is an extremely safe large city. We once left a camera on a park bench and when we returned at the other end of the day to go to lost and found hoping someone would have turned it in, we were directed back to the same park bench where the camera was still sitting safely. So I was able to get around and explore by myself in a way that completely changed my perspective.

I took a bus and subway to practice Kendo. My teachers there including Goshima-Sensei were so patient with me while I struggled to understand the nuances of martial arts practice. Kendo is so fast - I feel like I learned to observe minute movements to predict what an opponent might do. It was also very regimented and structured practice.

When I look at the map, I also remember going to temples (like Ginkaku-ji), castles (Nijo-jo) and shrines (Heian-jingu).
I remember exploring the Philosopher’s Path and Gion and feeling transported in time.

It was eye opening to see a different culture up close. Kyoto was the first place I had seen people wear face masks when they were sick to prevent other people from getting sick (this is in the mid 80’s!). The cultural alignment to groups and collective qualities was incredibly powerful to experience first hand. At every moment you represent one or more groups and need to be actively thinking about how you are representing them. Your value and membership in the group depends on this. The idea that you are independent and can do whatever you want is sort of implied, but people have moved past that to a higher level of culture and community.

Living in Japan was transformative for me on many levels. I’ll never forget experiencing culture shock coming back to the United States and thinking how rude everyone was. One was as simple as just realizing that my silly ideas about formal grammar and how things work were very provincial. They betrayed that I was from such a small town and could possibly think the world worked in such simple ways. In many ways, living in Japan at a young age opened me up to be ready for experiencing and learning from other cultures.

Providence

A lot of my early time in Providence was dominated by being at Brown. It’s funny, going to Brown from Northampton it actually felt more conservative! One thing that hit me square was just how much money everyone had. I worked a lot in college, often 30-40 hours in a week. I watched privileged kids do a lot of stupid shit. I also felt like a small fish for the first time. I mean, a lot of people were smarter than me. Which was great actually. Just new.

One thing I used to do in Providence was run the hills. I would just go north on South Main street and up each street to Benefit, then at Star I would go up to Benefit and run from Benefit up to Prospect. Jenckes was a killer man.

As the years passed, I got to know the gritty side of Providence a bit too. I participated in internships for social justice working with small non profits. I found hole in the wall restaurants and even raves. (DJ Venom!)

I met my wife in Providence and got my first “real job” there. We moved up to pretty good restaurants and came to appreciate the food scene. This was all before the new mall and Waterfires, but we could see that change coming. Now, Providence is just as hip as we’d want it to be.

Tokyo

While I was living in Providence, I took a work gig in Tokyo, Japan. I lived in Roppongi, which is the neighborhood where all the foreigners lived. I went to clubs, ate well, did Aikido and worked in a skyscraper in Shinjuku. I used to explore on weekends. One of my favorite trips was to Kamakura. One time I climbed Mt. Fuji in the middle of the night so I could see the sun rise from the peak.

Tokyo was a crazy busy place. My co-workers commuted hours each day. The Shinjuku Mitsui building was built to withstand earthquakes and we could really feel it shake even in storms. In 6 months, I only went to one event at a co-worker’s home.

Although I spoke some Japanese, much of the work I did was conducted in English for my benefit. Even though I was the only one at the table that didn’t speak perfect Japanese. It was eye opening how hard the Japanese people I met were willing to work to make others feel comfortable - while at the same time it was near impossible to cross into the actual group.

I remember one discussion about rolling out a system we had built in the US for the Japan team to use and the team in Japan was getting cold feet. They were anxious about bugs and performance. I remember distinctly sitting in a conference room as a 23-24 year old and watching each person around the table sigh and carefully say that they thought maybe it woudln’t be prudent to push the system without further testing. When my turn came last, I did my very best to be polite and diplomatic and asked if maybe there were a middle ground where we could roll it out on a provisional basis and maybe avoid embarrassment while also winning a small victory. Amazingly, the conversation went all the way back around the table, one by one, until everyone had basically agreed to my idea! Nobody wanted to take a risk but nobody wanted to lose face about not moving forward either. I think that one conversation paid for the cost of living in Japan by opening up that team to a lot of western ideas.

There were some bad things in Japan too. I felt isolated a lot. The racism by my Japaneses colleagues against a Chinese man in our department was overt and outrageous. I certainly learned that there are a lot of different cultures in Asia and while they mey be similar in some ways they are not interchangeable.

I loved Japan. But it was not home for me.

Chicago

When we first moved to Chicago, I thought we would be there for 4 years and then move again. We were there for my wife to train in Medicine and Pediatrics. I kept my Providence based job and worked remotely for a time. That meant I could work at home or in cafe’s much of the time. I took up long distance running at this time and ran the Chicago Marathon three times in the early 2000’s. I also played both competitive and pick up soccer - which for the first time in my experience involved teams coming from very specific ethnic groups (eg. the West Indian Jets or the different Spanish speaking teams from South America or the Eastern European Teams).

This was the first time that I probably had exposure to whole neighborhoods that were primarily from a certain ethnic or racial group. Devon, Chinatown, and so many more added a richness to the experience.

We lived in an apartment, then a townhouse, then a really old house in Hyde Park. Hyde Park was remarkable for having an affluent concentrated black community. Compared with most places I had been, this was eye opening and really cool to see.

I loved the music - from Buddy Guy to Andy’s Jazz Showcase to the Green Mill. Man I saw some good shows that were chill and easy to get to.

I also got my teeth knocked out at a Chicago Fire game - which is part of why I don’t dig crowds and stadiums so much anymore. Sox, Cubs, Bulls and Bears events were a ton of fun. Ironically, the best team there during our time was the Blackhawks and I never saw them live.

Another thing that was great about Chiago was having lots of family on both sides there. I loved taking the L to different places and I still feel like Chicago is such an amazingly accessible big city if you fly in to Midway and take the Orange line to downtown. Great food, too.

When I look at the map, the proximity to the Art Museum, Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium during our time in the South Loop hold a special place for me. When the kids were young (they were born there), we used to take them for walks in the museums. I also remember so much good time on the lake front - all the way from Rogers Park to the South Shore Cultural Center in Stony Island.

For me, Chicago was a livable, diverse, big city. From a work perspective, a lot of my closest network is still from Chicago from my time there. In the end, we stayed 4 more years after the first 4, then another 10 or so with my wife on faculty at University of Chicago. What a place that was and what a community!

Dallas

We moved to Dallas for a few reasons. One was that my wife’s parents are here and they are getting older. Another is that the kids seemed about ready to take a jump school wise and that had worked out. Finally, I think my wife’s career track somehow opened into an opportunity to build a whole center around her specialty and all that seemed to add up to be plenty to make it worth a move. For the first two years we were here, I commuted back to Chicago a lot for work. And even that wasn’t really enough - we lost some key contracts because I wasn’t casually around enough to read the tea leaves.

I have to say, I have very mixed feelings about Dallas. I have had contractors come in my house and insult me to my face about politics or people from out of state. Everyone in my neighborhood has a gun. Most go to church. From where I sit, it is a clear step backward in terms of racism and … pretty much anything I think about in terms of progressive values that are geared toward inclusion and making the world better. What I have seen in Dallas is more of an embrace of the mercenary cowboy attitude. People are mostly friendly to your face, but that really doesn’t mean anything. They are out to get theirs and look great and be perfect doing it. I have never seen wealth on the scale that we routinely see it in Dallas. It actually feels obscene to me.

As a place, Dallas feels dominated by highways. 35, 75, 635, The Tollway. We chose to live somewhere central which means we don’t spend too much time on those highways. Thank goodness.

I tried to find places to hike and used the 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Dallas book. The first was closed because a private jet had crashed there the day before. The second was a concrete sidewalk along a canal in a totally new community of freshly built townhomes. There was a shooting range across the canal so I just heard “pop. pop. pop.” while I was walking. I could hardly believe this was how my attempt to get out hiking was going to start (and end?). One of the big walking paths near us is .. conveniently .. under high tension power lines. Nobody seems to care too much.

Dallas is also in the South. I know, you know. But I didn’t. I didn’t know what that really meant. It means everyone is perfect, don’t you know!? It means football and church rule. It means classism and race doesn’t exist, except that believe me - it does.

In all fairness, I have enjoyed offices in Deep Ellum and Oak Lawn and the food is actually quite good! I haven’t done a good job of finding a community … but at the same time, I do think I’ve tried a bit and just not really fit into several. Covid made this much worse because when everybody made their pods we weren’t in any.

When I look at a map of Dallas, other than the Highways, I see a sprawling suburbia. There are plenty of big box shopping opportunities but no walk in chill jazz clubs that I’ve found yet. There are lots of neighborhoods with big nice houses, but they tear down an old house at the drop of a hat here to build a modern (but instantly outdated) new home on the lot.

As you can probably tell, I am still finding my way in Dallas. I believe it is a great place, as much as anywhere is a great place, I just need to find a lot more here to make it home. I’m working at it.

Next Place?

I think my takeaway from the maps and these reflections is that for me a place is really about people and I need to remember all of those places that shaped me, embrace that and now go work to find my people. I still believe that will happen in Dallas. I just need to keep working at it and be comfortable in my own grounded history.

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