Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: # 6 (Tenure)

April 3, 2012 · Print This Article

I just heard another New York peer round up to the decade when asked how long he’d been in New York. His first response was an efficient, “Ten years,” and then went on to say he moved to New York City in the middle of the Kerry/Bush election. It was probably an innocent fib, perhaps even a mathematical oversight, but it marked the bazillionth time I’d heard someone padding their New York tenure, and I’ve taken to recognize the move.

Moved NYC in April ’05: ”Been here about a decade.”

Moved in June of ‘04: ”Been living on the Lower East for the better part of the century.”

Implants in New York are like kids dying to have a double-digit age, or one too eager to become a teenager: “I’m almost 13”

“I’m starting big boy school next year.”

When I mentioned this to my wife, she told me that it was just as petty of me to scorekeep as it was for someone to embellish. Perhaps, but I can’t be punished for merely noticing a trend, can I? It’s hard to tell when one is over-vigilant because it feels exactly the same as observation. I would say I keep an objective mental inventory of all food in our house and she would say I focus more heavily on the number of squares on the chocolate bars that come and go. And to the contrary, I would say that it is she who notices me noticing the chocolate because she’s the one with the issue.

The point is that it’s hard to distinguish between impartial observation and vigilantism..and also that what one is looking for often says something about who he or she is.

I understand the impulse to compete in NYC though. New York is the only city I’ve ever spent any significant amount of time in that has a learning curve steeper than acquiring a language that has a totally different alphabet. There is a genuine satisfaction in finding a suitable apartment and to memorizing the neighborhood’s alternate side parking rules. Knowing how to negotiate the Brooklyn Bridge from the tangle of D.U.M.B.O. sidestreets will give a humble man a full-chest. And knowing how to get navigate Flushing, Queens to get good dumplings makes many an implanted New Yorker feel like Maro Polo.

No one has ever one-upped me in Wisconsin by claiming they’ve been in Fond du Lac for longer than I, nor has anyone bragged that they found an “undiscovered” neighborhood that was yet-to-be gentrified. People don’t chronicle time spent in a particular place in Wisconsin because time isn’t in itself a measure of valor.

If aliens came from a galaxy far far away and were looking for a place to live in the U.S., they might choose to lay anchor in Cedarburg, Wisconsin: the roads are paved smooth, grass grows green in open fields everywhere, food is (too) plentiful, the people are kind, and the living is comfortable even for the marginal citizen. And being from so far away, our aliens would probably be on the margins. But as long as said aliens didn’t exoticize or flaunt the culture on their old planet, no one would question when their ship landed in Cedarburg, just that it chose it willfully and respectfully. And that it didn’t try to stand out too much – Wisconsinites prefer formal over temporal continuity. They’re György Lukács to New Yorkers’ Bertolt Brecht.

Living in Cedarburg part-time for 7 months and 5 days, to the hour, I thought I’d left the tenure pretense behind. A student asked me today how long I’ve lived in New York and I reflexively said “a decade,” even though I only moved there in August of ’02.

In the moment I couldn’t tell whether the slip was due to efficiency or overdetermination. I thought about correcting the technical error, but he was looking at me like I was a painted warrior from the East.

“Really, why’d you come all the way out to Fond du Lac for?”

I avoided quicksand by asking him how long he’d been in Fond du Lac.

“Since I was born..but my family’s been here for almost 200 years.”

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