A bit nervous? A bit nervous?! Look, remember that student in your college classes who locked eyes on the text in front of her when there was any danger of being called on? Who visibly blanched when the teacher so much as leaned in her general direction? Who had four different outfits the color of the classroom walls, the better to camouflage herself? That student was me.
I couldn’t speak in class in high school. I couldn’t speak in class in college. I couldn’t speak in class in graduate school. For a few years there, I taught some college courses and, lo and behold, I could speak in class. Necessity will make you do the damnedest things, and I daresay I spoke pretty well in the courses I taught. But for some moments in the studio at WBEZ tonight, that intervening experience fled, and I felt every bit the shy, quiet, scared mouse of old. I was surprised, to put it mildly, to find that some of that old resistance had stuck around.
Terry and our gracious, resourceful host Edward Lifson helped exorcise those ghosts and got me through the rough patches of this, my very first radio broadcast. I felt warmed up by the second half of the show, and was able to express some of the things I had wanted to say. By the time our time was up, it was much as each of them had promised beforehand–I was surprised and sorry to see the hour run out, and full of thoughts that would never get voiced. But the beauty of this medium is that what doesn’t get voiced can always get blogged.
Over the next few days I’ll post some further thoughts on the whole interesting question the WBEZ series Should I Stay or Should I Go? raised about the dilemma of artists in Chicago. One of the more startling moments tonight was hearing read back to me all the factoids I jotted down about myself a few months ago, when Terry first invited me to co-blog. One of these noted my attraction to what I called the “medium-hot centers” of the world, a category in which I implicitly included Chicago. When I uttered that phrase in October, I didn’t think too much about it, but participating in WBEZ’s good series this week made me do some of that thinking belatedly. In the makeshift case for Chicago I tried to put together tonight, the idea of medium hotness was central, if unstated.
So what does it mean to be medium-hot? What’s the attraction of “medium”? Here’s one way of describing what I find so liberating about the scene and atmosphere here, especially in comparison with the only other place I’ve ever lived, and the place every city compares itself to, New York. This departs from something John Updike says in his brief preface to the recently published collection of his early stories, pointed out to me by the perspicacious OFOB [Our Friend On the Block, a recurring character here who is encouraged to recur more!]. Updike talks about the difficulty he had writing fiction in New York City, and his inevitable “flight from Manhattan,” where he found too little ordinary life going on for his purposes. Updike felt he couldn’t thrive there as a writer, and speaks of wanting to be somewhere where he could immerse himself in the ordinary, and find the extraordinary therein. This was how he conceived of his particular task as a writer, and New York was the wrong setting for that project. Reading this got me thinking that what I love about this city, big and richly varied as you could wish it, but not superlative and not the default destination that New York is, is how from moment to moment it offers you a choice between the ordinary and extraordinary. You can move from one to the other kind of experience more or less at will. Sometimes in New York City, in my experience and Updike’s, you could get stuck in the extraordinary, and get very tired.
To a great degree, of course, this comes down to questions of individual temperament, which brings us back to where this post started. Yet aside from such considerations, I can’t help remembering that one thing I actively wanted to get away from when I left New York ten years ago was the casual assumption, not universally held but not in short supply either, that everything of import was of bicoastal, and mainly east-coast, origin. It felt suffocating. For all our back-and-forth tonight about just how immune Chicago is or isn’t to accusations of provincialism, part of what I feel I escaped by coming here was precisely a form of provincialism, and one that was all the more invidious for being called sophistication.
And that’s not all! Look for more on this topic in the coming days–and please e-mail me with your thoughts, whether you’re in Chicago, New York, or a different place altogether. This conversation started by our new friends at WBEZ seems to me one worth carrying on.
P.S. It’s nice to be back.