Does My Family Belong in the City?

After every vacation I'm left wondering the same thing: Is my family in the place they should be?

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Have you ever seen a Subaru Outback in the wild? Not parked on a city block, sniffing the ass of another car, but out there alone in the tall grass and dirt, free? I did, recently, off the side of Route 125 in Durham, ME, a tiny town in Androscoggin County. It was for sale, a pale green 2004 model with 120,000 miles on it. $2,000 o.b.o. I came damn close to buying it, too.

It, here, doesn’t refer to the car itself. A quick pop of the hood revealed a rat’s nest in the engine. The wheels needed changing and rust ate away at the body. No, “it” was Maine itself. “It” was being a dad who lives in Maine, with his kids, a pool perhaps, and land definitely. Ah land, that four-letter word that can drag men across oceans, around the world, and, most definitely, a guy from the city to the country.

Bronx-born Billy Joel once sang New York was a state of mind, and maybe it is. But it’s also my state of residence, and has been for the last 20 years, so it falls to Maine to occupy that vast mental geography where things are just better. Like many urban fathers on the Eastern Seaboard, the natural beauty of Maine has long called to me, representing not just stands of pine and rocky beaches but a place where I could raise my boys anointed by the benedictions of the great outdoors. I could be a Dad in the Wild.

Where I live in Brooklyn, nature is something we go to. Luckily for us, it’s only a few blocks away, in the 526-acres of Prospect Park. But even that is designed. Though there are woods and a tinge of the sauvage, it isn’t nature per se but someone’s idea of it. What’s more is that it must be got to. Now, I am certain there is value in the commute for my boys. That is to say, something is learned walking past the blocks of tire repair shops, laundromats, and Greek pharmacies. Past the Bangladeshi take-out shops full of taxi drivers coming off their shifts and the shoe repair stand with its ancient yarmulked cobbler peering out. There are lessons to be learned crossing Ocean Parkway strolling past the beautiful old houses of our neighborhood. But when I listen to the questions my sons ask — “Is that a single-family home?” (Clue: How many buzzers there are by the door.) and “Is that a mansion?” (Answer: No, it’s an apartment building.) — the allure of Maine grows. For this is not the sort of knowledge with which I wish to equip my sons.

Supported by science, ratified by the spirit, nature does the human soul good. Kids especially benefit from what Edward Wilson called biophilia. Long before Bjork’s stellar album of the same name, Wilson described the phenomenon by which humans seek out nature in order to satisfy “the urge to associate with other forms of life.” According to researchers at the Human Environment Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the more nature there is in a kid’s life, the less aggressive they are, the higher their capacity to pay attention.

This, of course, simply solidifies the fact clearly apparent from centuries of painting and poetry. “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote poet of the wilderness John Muir. When in the woods — in our case Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park on Casco Bay — my boys follow the progress of a caterpillar for hours and stares in awe at oak trees, long shadows against the sky. There are so many questions but so few words and I know the boys, silent, are answering them deep within themselves. So why, then, do I keep my family cooped up in a two-bedroom attic?

Like everyone else, I’ve read — and even written and certainly said — that becoming a father changed me completely. That when my kids came along the center of my universe shifted to them. The earth revolved around the son. But that’s just not true. Perhaps it’s because I had my first son at 29 (early, by New York City standards) or perhaps because I’ve been a freelance writer (a profession in which “making it” is an elusive obsession) but there’s been a somewhat long lag time between becoming a father and putting my kids first.

If I’m being truly honest, what’s kept me in the city is a sneaking suspicion that leaving it is admitting defeat. I remember way back in 2005 or so, I had breakfast with Gawker‘s Nick Denton at Soho restaurant Balthazar. Nick was, as Nick does, talking about some of the people he knew. I don’t remember now who they were but they were famous-ish, certainly to an aspiring writer like me. They had written books that were published! They were editors-in-chief of magazines that I read! Somewhat naively, I asked how he knew so many famous and successful people. What he said stuck with me. “If you’re in New York long enough, all the people you know are successful. The failures all left.”

Over the years, I’ve pinged myself like NASA does a far-flung satellite on a mission to Mars. “Ambition. This is the Wild. Come in Ambition.” And every year, Ambition, hurtling through space, has averred. There was too much still to explore, too much data to collect, dust to analyze.

Let’s cut the aeronautical bullshit. I have too much ego to leave the city. Nick’s words burrowed deep into my consciousness and I fear leaving New York City means admitting I never quite made it like I was meant to. But more and more the signals from the Satellite Ambition come in more and more faint. Now I’m fully aware that part of failing means accepting, and normalizing, your failure. In this case, swathing it in the language of acceptance and escape to the country. It’s like when someone gets a divorce and you say, “Sorry” and they say, “Look, at this point divorce is the best option. I’m actually looking forward to it.” And you think, “Yeah…um…okay. Great coping!”

But what this viewpoint leaves out is happiness. Am I happy? And not only am I happy but am I raising happy children or — since these days my kids suffer severe emotional trauma over things like not being able to play Believer by Imagine Dragons on repeat for the 247th time — am I raising children with the best chance possible of being happy? Maine isn’t Shangri-La but, as I retreat among the tall-grass and wild-flowers in the rear-view mirror, it seems an awful lot closer than Brooklyn.

Maybe it’s not going to be that specific Subaru Outback. But I saw a lot of cars by the side of the road in Maine this summer. And one day, I’m going to buy one of those cars and my family is going to get land and build a little house and listen to John Prine, move to Maine, and I’ll become Dad in the Wild. I’ll leave 21-year-old me back at Balthazar and welcome 37-year-old me, father of two and husband of one, to the Palace Diner in Biddeford, ME. Then we’ll all pile into the car and follow the lead of John Muir who wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”

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