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New York State of Mind

In a new way I was struck today with what six months in New York (pretty much to the day) can do to a person. I came here originally, to be sure, with a mission. Not quite “to make my fortune” but close. For love and friends, of course, but also to try my hand at being a Writer, to publish, to make some money, and gain a reputation somewhere of some kind. And along that way there has been some success: a few interesting jobs, some articles published, a book in the works, and, of course, friends new and old. But those things, like all things, don’t leave one unscathed.

Take this very blog, for instance. The redesign last week was, in some respects, a departure from what The Row Boat has always been about. It (secretly) shares a motto with Small’s Clone Press, the wonderful phrase of Jorge Luis Borges: “I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.” Yet the purpose of the redesign was, in many respects, an effort to open The Row Boat to a world beyond, equipping it with the latest blog software rather than the homespun Little Logger program that I wrote myself and that worked perfectly well for me and those friends of mine who care to read. In New York, the instinct has been so much to hand out business cards, to self-promote, that I began turning The Row Boat into a business card without even knowing it. I even caught myself (and only half stopped myself) trying to use the site to boost the Google PageRank of my name, Nathan Schneider. Red-handed if I ever saw it!

In a lecture at UCSB last year (moderated by my graduate advisor, Ann Taves), Rabbi Michael Lerner asserted that American culture is permeated by the religion of capitalism, which other religions like Christianity and Judaism tend to be subservient to. They mold their anthropologies to frame capitalism as the only realistic practice. And this religion, in turn, molds us. According to Lerner, it makes it harder for us to love and care for each other by insisting always on fame, wealth, self-interest, and the bottom line. Now we could go on forever about whether capitalism could be called a religion, but it seems a much more straightforward claim to say that working in certain ways does adjust our values and habits. One need not even point the finger at capitalism as such, for there are all kinds of capitalisms. I might even call it, simply, the New York state of mind.

These things, however, are for the beholder. Anyone who has spent time in New York knows that what it is most of all is multiplicity; it is many things. The nicest people in the world, who will go forever out of their way to make sure you get on the right subway line, and the meanest. What this place is full of is choices—even, in Lerner’s terms, religions—to choose from. The gospel of wealth or the gospel of poverty. The gospel of non-profit or the gospel of for-profit (both come in all kinds, in turn). The gospel of Brooklyn or the gospel of Queens, even.

Remembering those words from Borges reminded me that there are different ways to go. We are not creatures of the plainest rational choice theory, simply maximizing money and reputation wherever possible. At worst, we participate in much broader kinds of economies, and recognize a whole range of capital. In some economies, kindness, charity, creativity, courage, reflection, and so forth are ends in themselves.

While I used to be content writing for friends and family alone (possibly more out of necessity than choice), I now economize and write almost exclusively when there is money or reputation to be gained in it. The redesign notwithstanding, though, The Row Boat is still an exception to this. I still write here with little expectation of readers, with only the desire to write, my little act of memory, my substitute for immortality in the very doing of it. I’ve tried Google ads, I’ve tried sharing links, I’ve tried everything you’re supposed to do to get traffic on the web, but still no money or reputation has come out of The Row Boat. Hardly anyone reads it. Maybe that is its greatest gift.

4 comments on “New York State of Mind

  1. What does six months in NYC do to a person?

    As ominous as that question sounds, it doesn’t seem that you’ve lost your soul. Maybe now you’re over a hump.

    What does six months in NYC do to one’s fertility?
    (You see how ominous that question can be?) 🙂

  2. Oh six months in NYC does plenty to a person. I’m not sure what exactly, but I’ll agree with Nathan and say that it does something.
    I remember feeling really depressed around the 6th month mark. Walking around on really busy sidewalks and hating the feeling of brushing against people or just knowing that they were all around. I got over that eventually, but I know there has to be some other lasting imprint that was made around that time. I think I did learn that making money was nice, but that was long after 6 months. I don’t know. Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

  3. Yeah, the money part is interesting. I just got a raise, finally, at the New York Times, which opens the first possibility of making more than $12,000 for the year. I have no permanent place to live, so I keep moving around. So far, I think these things have kept the place from becoming truly home—or home enough to feel as you describe, perhaps. Not enough time or quiet or money to feel depressed, still.

  4. A friend just pointed out this recent article in the Atlantic that asks whether the internet is making us all stupid. Maybe part of the mind-change I’m talking about is not just New York, but the fact that in New York I’ve done nothing but be on the internet. In the process, it has come to structure my sense of ambition. Rather than wanting and trying to have good conversations face-to-face, I end up putting all my energy into online conversations (such as this one).

    I agree with the article, so far as goes the assumption that media affects us. That can be seen, archivally, in the very earliest piece I’ve got up in the Papers section of the site, which is about technology in the writing process. Where I might disagree, though, is the assumption that “the Net” is one single thing or does one single thing to us. There are many internets for many kinds of users. There are the blog users, the printout users, Gutenberg.org readers, and so forth. While Google may do much to unite virtually everyone’s habits, there are still significant differences.

    If we are to answer (or address) the article’s pessimism (the gist is yes, the internet is making us stupid), we need to look more carefully at the differences between how different people use different sites. Are there ways to organize information that will encourage critical thinking more than others? My guess is that, as with magazines, books, and everything else, it matters less that you do the internet than how.

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