neither here nor there

So I was listening to a podcast in which the hosts were discussing movies based in Los Angeles, and that LA is something of a muse to the Coen brothers (this was in the context of Hail, Caesar) – they then brought up The Big Lebowski (which I have never seen) and said that it was a love letter to a specific stratum of Los Angeles which is outside the entertainment industry realmAnd this resonated with me, not least because I have found myself drawn to LA in recent years (maybe as part of the whole solidarity-of-California-exceptionalism of the Tr*mp era) and look at that the same way as I look at my whole issue of loving NorCal and despising Silly Con Valley. And then I looked back…

It occurs to me that you can go all the way back to grad school and find the same pattern: I live and work and exist in places where I am outside the sphere of what defines the place. Three years at Apple notwithstanding, I have spend a third of my life living in this godforsaken Valley and working with tech but not in tech. Before that, I was seven years in the DMV and not at all associated with the work of government, nor anything that exists in the orbit of government (unless you want to argue that the confluence of the National Geographic Society and PBS helped summon Discovery Communications into existence and make DC a lodestar for documentary programming, which is probably a reach). My DC wasn’t the cut and thrust of Hill legislation and agency lobbying (apart from all the softball teams we played), my DC was Metro commutes and the Sports Junkies and the 4Ps and Hail To The Redskins.

And before that, Nashville, where I managed to go to the Ryman for a musical once, to the Bluebird for open mic night once, and never set foot at the Opry, or the Exit/In, or Rotiers (until 2013) – where I lived two blocks from Sixteenth Avenue and never once took a turn down Music Row or headed to Gilley’s. I still haven’t been to the Country Music Hall of Fame, never went to CMA FanFest, never darkened the door of Robert’s or Tootsie’s or even the Wild Horse Saloon. In short, I managed to live in Nashville for three years almost completely unengaged with the music industry at all. (If you want to be snarky about it, you could also say that I lived four years at undergrad without engaging with the Greek system, its principal industry, but it’s whatever.)

The point of all this is that by some instrumentality, I have managed to spend more than half my life in places where what I do is not within the parameters of what drives that place. That seems to me to be an exceptionally complex piece of information that probably deserves further excavation. But it also goes back to my thoughts about what it would be like to leave here and try again somewhere I used to live. Everywhere I lived was of a certain time and place. Nashville isn’t remotely the same place I left twenty-plus years ago, and even if it were, I wouldn’t just be going back as an outsider to the music business, I’d be largely an outsider to Vanderbilt and an outsider to the kind of Baptist Instagram Vegas it is now. My identity in the DMV was bound up with National Geographic in ways that would make it tricky to return, even if sixteen years hadn’t gone by and the old gang wasn’t scattered to the four winds. And Alabama…

Hold up.

First off, this isn’t happening for a long time, if ever. I have over 650,000 reasons not to go back to a state that could almost elect Roy Moore to the US Senate. And humidity alone means I’m 89% positive I couldn’t live there again. But there’s something going on in Birmingham – a city that is reaching for the modern urban life while remaining unapologetically black, unapologetically African-American Southern. A city with craft beer and professional soccer and downtown baseball and bike share, on a small and human scale. And if I were dropped down there…do I have any cultural affinity at all? I left twenty-six years ago with no thought of ever coming back unless there was a holiday, a wedding or a funeral concerned in it. But if I didn’t have certain relatives to contend with any longer, and the only option for moving somewhere that would make it possible to live off the retirement savings was to buy a loft in Southside…I’ll be honest, if you frame it as retirement in Birmingham at age 60 versus trying to find a new job in Silly Con Valley at age 60, it gets a lot clearer real quick.

And really, that’s been a big part of the takeaway from the last couple of months. If I’m only ever going to see friends over Zoom, if I’m going to stay in the house where it’s air conditioned, if clothing and electronics are something you have shipped to you and work is something that happens on a laptop over the wifi from your guest bedroom…if you’re not going to have the opportunity to avail yourself of the transit and the fog and the proximity of San Francisco or Santa Cruz or Disneyland, what does it really matter where your bunker is…especially if you don’t have to work from it at all any longer?

And I guess the biggest question of all: am I Alabama enough to have a place there when I almost never did in my first twenty-two years?

As I said, it’s an exceptionally complex piece of information that probably deserves further excavation.

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