A eulogy for city living
We moved out of the city last month. Officially. Sold our house and packed our shit and moved it all out into the country.
It had an anticlimactic finality to it. Which seemed fitting.
I was raised on a 40 acre wood in mid Michigan, and I always knew I’d boomerang back to it eventually. Until then, I figured there was no point in living anywhere but the city.
Because diversity of experience is the gift we give ourselves and the legacy we give our children. Also, because it’s possible to have an actual serious white collar career as a creative in the city, which was something I wanted. Also because lukewarm measures like suburbs are for sissies. Jesus said so.
I first moved to the city when I was 17. Bellingham, Washington, really wasn’t a “big city”, with a little less than 100,000 people, but it had enough one way streets and bustling retail districts, and a vastly different enough culture from the one I’d grown up in rural Michigan to serve as a metropolitan experience. Before that, I’d never lived in a place where you couldn’t pee outdoors in privacy, squirrels notwithstanding.
I moved to Grand Rapids when I boomeranged back to Michigan from Washington state in 2008. Grand Rapids, the notorious hometown of Nixon’s VP and military industrial lackey Gerald R. Ford, and home of the VanAndel and DeVos families, whose wealthy Dutch forefathers founded the multi-level marketing company Amway earlier in the last century. On top of the razed sacred mounds of the native peoples who had been driven off the land.
Of course. I didn’t know any of this when I first moved there.
It was…a big deal to me, to move to Grand Rapids twelve years ago. Young writer with big dreams in the big city type stuff. You know.
And there was something special in the air in Grand Rapids during the aughts. After decades of crumbling infrastructure which had turned the city’s urban core into a ghost town, businesses and nightlifers were beginning to find their way back downtown. Life was beginning to stir. Thanks, in large part no doubt, to the seeds of culture and life planted in the late 90s by tactical revolutionaries like Reb Roberts and his unruly gangs of outsider artists in Heartside. And the VandenBergs, with their outsider art galleries poorly masquerading as bars: The Meanwhile, and later The Pyramid Scheme. Some of the individuals and lore I’ve had the privilege of getting acquainted with along my travels as a writer in the big city. But I’m jumping ahead.
When I moved to Grand Rapids — population pushing half a million — I wanted to be a writer who made a decent living for her family, and I wanted to build a serious enough career in commercial work that I could launch myself into authorship at some point. I also, at the end of the day, wanted to do good work in the world, and to use my mind and my voice to make it brighter.
Of course, I had no idea how fucked up the world was at the time. Not that it would have changed my goals. Although I might have altered my strategy and expectations a bit had I known.
So, yeah. I moved to the big city with big dreams. And I suppose the part of my story which crushes me the most is the part where…for a hot minute…I actually hit my stride and was “living the dream”, as the Xers say.
Again, turns out “the dream” is also super fucked up, and not so much a dream as a CPTSD-inducing nightmare.
But for that brief moment before upward inertia let go and gravity took over, I was flying.
From zero clients to slinging $70K+ per year as a freelance copywriter. Creative director for a multimillion dollar startup at age 26. Swanky business journal awards and launch parties, and TV interviews in hardhats and heels. I interviewed CEOs and business owners across the state, wandered manufacturing plant floors on brand discovery tours. At one point, I was renting my own private office downtown, across the street from the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel above a fancy steakhouse. I would walk down to my office in the morning around 9 or 10, would have networking lunch meetings down on Monroe Center, and on summer nights I wouldn’t saunter back up the hill to my little house in Midtown until 10 or 11 at night. Weekends were for working from home. I was a creative machine.
I was successful.
Then, I wasn’t. Suddenly or slowly; I honestly can’t remember anymore.
Of course, now I understand that this is how the system works. That it’s a casino model which takes its queues from drug dealers. It’s designed to get you hooked — not to give you a sustainable path through life. Surviving the system with one’s sanity in tact is difficult enough for the normies. To be an anti-authoritarian poet trying to operate authentically within the system…it’s simply not designed for that. For the scathing, unbarred honesty of the bard. Or, you know. Really for humans in general. In my opinion.
But I didn’t understand this at the time, nor was I aware of the reality that large businesses and trust funds are run almost entirely by sociopaths in suits, for whom society has a great deal of respect. So I blamed myself. And I kept trying to redeem myself in the eyes of the Business Gods whom I had offended.
That all sounds very vague and abstract, I’m sure. But I’m being fairly literal. Let’s just say, as a point of example, that at one point I was let go for sharing with my colleagues information which is now considered by most startups to be best practice to be made available to everyone in the company.
It’s all very strange and gaslighty, if not on an individual level, at a systemic one. I could go on and on. I’ve actually written about a lot of my experiences as a young professional in quite literal terms elsewhere, but that’s not what I’m on about here.
I shoulder plenty of the blame for my failures. But I’m not the only one who’s struggled, and I’m keenly aware that many have struggled much more. I’ve watched so many of my peers burn out in similar ways. Regardless of my own failings, I’m aware now that there’s something intrinsically wrong with the culture of business at large.
Read the rest of this essay over at my place, the @creativeonion network.