Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

June 10, 2004 Back in New York.

I went to my thirtieth high school reunion in New York last weekend after the Cajun festival. It was fun, but a bit of a culture shock after two months on the road. In fact, New York is a bit of a culture shock all around. I was finally getting used to people who aren’t like me, and suddenly I’m facing hordes of people just like me.

Well, okay, not just like me, I guess. I suppose I am becoming a bit schizophrenic on the road. Now there are two versions of me. The original one is New York, intellectual, professional. She needs to be the most impressive person around, the smartest, the one with the best grades in one of the most selective high schools in the country, go to the best colleges, have the most impressive resume. She’s the one who likes to get up and give talks, loved running environmental commissions in Arlington, and wants to be the big fish in the pond, even if the pond is just a puddle.

Then there’s the other version of me, who of course has been showing her face for decades. She left college after her freshman year, doesn’t deal well with authority or being told what to do, she never wants to have a boss, would always rather head in a different direction from everyone else – follow a different drummer, to use a hackneyed phrase from the sixties – rather than risk being somewhere in the middle of the pack. She chose not to look for a job at the World Bank or USAID when everyone else in graduate school would have killed for one, chose to free-lance instead of being staff somewhere, chose to do short-term work instead of looking for a secure overseas job, and of course has now chosen to go on the road.

All of it was about independence over security, but going on the road is also about really changing world view, or at least looking at alternate world views. Traveling in Africa and other parts of the developing world is different, but the people I meet are still just like my original self – name-dropping, hard-working, trying to impress with their experience and knowledge. Whereas on the road most people I meet wouldn’t even get my original self, they wouldn’t know the names, wouldn’t have any idea what I do, and wouldn’t care. Try explaining what environmental accounting is to someone I meet in a campground, that’s absurd!

It was a sign that I’ve made a bit of progress that I was taken aback by the speeches from women in the five-year classes at the high school reunion, citing the grand accomplishments of the other women in their classes. How many doctors and lawyers and shrinks and professors and PhDs there were. Not to mention the president of Hunter College (our mother school) and the dean of Harvard Law School. Never how many car mechanics there who could rebuild a Lancia engine from top to bottom, nor how they enjoy their time cooking at festivals or flying kites or building kayaks. I was also surprised at how many have never left New York – though of course that’s who’s around to come to the reunions.

I think New York might bring out the worst in me. Everyone I see brings out my competitive instincts – especially the women at my reunion. It’s hard to remember, when I am faced with college presidents and law school deans, that at every decision point in my life I have chosen not to be part of an institution, not to rise in a bureaucracy, not to schmooze and lobby and network in order to gain influence and prestige. Because I still haven’t gotten past wanting that influence and prestige, even though I know I wouldn’t enjoy the life that’s required to grab and hold onto it.

Perhaps the New Yorkers could bring out my instinct to strike up conversations, the way I would somewhere else. Travelers do that, and in places where travelers are rare the locals love to talk to them. But the New Yorkers aren’t travelers, and they are overrun with tourists. In places foreign to me – small towns in the Blue Ridge Mountains, or on a ferry in the Outer Banks - I’m a traveler and I’m curious about their places. In a way I’m a traveler here, but I’m also a local. Maybe I should pretend I’m not – strike up the conversations without mentioning that I grew up here, and see what people say about their place. Now that might be interesting – if anyone here wanted to strike up conversations!

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