Welcome Back to All That

New YorkJoan Didion’s break up letter to New York has been inspiring writers for decades. Years after she first wrote Goodbye To All That, her thoughts have recurred in the words of younger women, slightly younger men and a whole host of both.

But it is only half the story. The other half, the half that is ignored or forgotten, is that Joan came back. There were no pithy love letters written as she left her home in Brentwood, Los Angeles, and moved back to Manhattan. She didn’t skulk back either. She moved into a Central Park West apartment that she couldn’t have afforded when she first left and became a near permanent fixture on the city’s social scene.

While Jeremy and I haven’t moved back to an Upper West Side home with a view of the park, we have moved back. To a place in Brooklyn with a view of the sunset, and a flat that feels palatial, at least to us.

But we didn’t move back for the apartment. There are far better places to go for interior space. We came back because we didn’t want to fall asleep.

New York, for all its indignities, is a place of life. It is teeming with it. As Mr. Sullivan complained in his Sunday Times of London column, “The human beings are stacked on top of one another in vast towers that create dark, narrow caverns in between. Gridlocked traffic competes with every conceivable noise and every imaginable variation on the theme of human rage and impatience.”

Sullivan didn’t mean that as a compliment. I’m not blind. But it is, in a way, because all that rubbing up against one another means that the city is bursting with possibilities for connection. There are no ivory towers here, no sanitized bubbles. There is humanity. People from every walk of life riding the subway together and walking the pavement together and kvetching together about the once scenic mounds of snow that have turned into stiff black mountains of trash.

Jeremy has a theory that the greatest cities in America are the ones teeming with immigrants, the ones with stories to tell, the ones who still believe in the promise of the American dream.

When we landed at JFK we were picked up by a Brooklyn taxi driver. We didn’t fist pump as he helped us haul our luggage into the boot. He didn’t talk to us about the state of competition in the latest ride sharing app. Instead he turned up the heat to beat the cold seeping in from the windows and told us about his childhood in Brooklyn. He told us about the movie theaters he had spent summers in, the community of Haitian refugees that he had lived amongst, his university bound son who came back to the city every holiday. He pointed out his favorite restaurants along the way.

That night we ate pizza with friends, we drank to celebrate our arrival and we talked. Because that is what you do in New York. You talk. It is a city of verbal acuity. A city where stories are told, opinions are debated and loud laughter is the best sort of compliment.

It is a city to love, and perhaps to hate. A place where stories begin and end. Perhaps most importantly, a place where they are made possible.

Experimenting with Patience

Patience is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a tendency to rush myself, and others.

Learning patience

I suspect that living in New York feeds my impatience. Rushing is a way of life here. Our food arrives minutes after we’ve ordered it, the subway shoots us from one end of the island to the other, the streets are clogged with city dwellers sliding, eyes-rolling between groups of dawdling tourists on the sidewalks.

It is a city where time is people’s greatest resource. Services have evolved to outsource anything that might ‘waste’ your time. Task Rabbit will run your errands or clean your flat, a virtual assistant will call your electricity company so you don’t have to wait on hold, Fresh Direct will bring groceries to your 5 floor walk-up so you don’t have to spend precious minutes in the line at Trader Joes.

It is all terribly efficient. But it is good for us? Is it feeding our happiness?

I spent the past two weeks travelling in Costa Rica. It took close to 3 hours to rent a car, every meal we ordered took at lease 30 minutes to make it to our table, we had to wait for an hour in the bank to speak to someone after a machine swallowed our debit card, we got stuck behind suspiciously-leaning-cattle-bearing-trucks that barely broke 40 MPH on the highways while spewing thick black exhaust.

And yet the World Database of Happiness lists Costa Rica as the happiest of 148 nations

Quite possibly it has a lot to do with the natural beauty of the country, or the fact that they dissolved their standing army in favour of pumping money into education, but it might also have something to do with living in a country where things happen in Tico-time.

Tico time happiness

Moving more slowly, waiting more often, forces us to look around. It may infuriate us but it also has the potential to let us see things, hear things and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Maybe all our rushing around is making us blind to the world outside of our blinkered efficiency.

So back in the city of hooking cars, heavy-footed cab drivers and appointment laden weeks, I’m seeing how it feels to talk a little slower, to walk at a different pace and spend a little more time watching the chaos around me.

New York After Sandy

Post-apocalyptic, confused, hopeful, supportive, broken – the reactions to New York in the wake of hurricane Sandy have spanned every adjective imaginable.

It depends where you are.

The city is split between those lucky areas that escaped largely unscathed and those areas that are still in darkness, still reeling and clawing back towards normality.

New York post Sandy map

Our realities could not be more different.  We were incredibly lucky to be located in a part of the city that was left almost entirely untouched, save a few downed trees. We kept hot water and electricity and only lost internet and heat for a while.

We’ve had lots of Manhattan friends come to stay for hot showers, a comfy bed, WiFi and lots of home-cooked meals. They’ve come with tales of local neighbors coming together and helping each other out, of restaurants serving customers by candle-light, of grocery stores giving free food to locals, of gyms opening their doors to offer showers. There have been less rosy stories as well – stories of piles of drowned rats, of 4 inches of flooded sewerage in bedrooms, of rotten food, of dark stairwells, of restaurants asking people to pay to charge their cell phones in order to call family and friends.

Darkness in New YorkIt seems as if the storm has brought out the best, and the worst in everyone. In the dark zone, there’s a craziness and a loneliness. Even here, where life carries on much the same, the disorientated city seeps over the water.

Location, Location, Location: Why we moved to New York

Frank Bures recently wrote a fantastic article in Thirty Two magazine on the fall of the Creative Class. The article is a well-written exploration of the holes in Richard Florida’s argument that young, innovative people move to places that are open and hip and tolerant, and that they, in turn, generate economic innovation. It opens with Frank’s decision to move to Madison, Wisconsin, because it was liberal and open-minded, a college town with bike paths and coffee shops. It ends with Frank’s disillusion with both Madison and Florida, and his decision to move to Minneapolis. As he puts it, “This time, we moved as wiser, more reality-based people. We researched it carefully. We picked the place we wanted to live not because of any trendy trope, or because it was high on any particular list, but because of the cheap housing, jobs, family and friends, as well as the arts, the biking, the public transit and quality of life.”

The whole article made me think about why Jeremy and I chose to live in New York. Why we packed up our car and drove from Chicago to New York with no apartment and no jobs lined up.

I know the reasons that we gave ourselves:

  • It was nearer my family (and at least a couple hours closer to England)
  • It was a place where things ‘happened’, the heart of the publishing industry and a breeding-ground for startups.
  • It was somewhere that we wanted to experience, a city that we expected to be gritty and adventurous and ideal for our late 20s.

We ended up in our flat in Brooklyn because we fell in love with the mismatched original floorboards, the tree-lined streets, the sense of community and the plethora of amazing restaurants. I’m glad we did. Our place feels like home, it feels like somewhere we have put down roots.

Brooklyn New York

And yet I wonder how much longer we will stay.

We both miss the access to the outdoors, we miss peacefulness and we lament our once existent bank balance. We are perpetually exhausted by the city.

I wonder if we will move to the countryside some day, or a different city, or a different country even. I expect that we will and yet, when I think of leaving, I dwell on all that I would lose in leaving New York. More than anything it is the people, the friends we have made and the family we have here, that I would miss. I balk against giving them up.

Ultimately, I do not think that any place, any city, is perfect. Everywhere is flawed in some ways and beautiful in others. As Bures puts it, “It may be wiser to try to create the place you want to live, rather than to keep trying to find it.”


We have a friend who is currently solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’ve not heard of it, the trail is a 6 month, 2,650-mile trek from the Mojave Desert to the Cascades, it is a never-ending snake trailing up the spine of the central west.

His journey is the kind of adventure that terrifies me. Yet, sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, I can see its appeal. Years ago, early on in our relationship, Jeremy and I spent months camping in the wilderness, hitch-hiking and trekking through sections of the emptier parts of America.

It was a time before we had a business and, as much as we adore the life we have now, we both miss that sense of undiluted freedom.

So, with that in mind, we decided to go hiking this weekend. Not exactly backpacking across the country, but a start at least.

We packed a few bottles of water, some granola bars, a bag of dried cherries, a couple bagels and set off for Bear Mountain. Just over an hour from the city, it offered a long drive past a smattering of mirror-smooth lakes, the promise of a few hours of lush hiking and the treat of a post-workout swim. The perfect city escape on a steamy weekend.

The car park was packed when we arrived and the lawns were strewn with families picnicking. We picked up a bare-bones map from the visitor’s centre and started out on a 6 mile loop. We were almost disappointed. We had come to escape the city crowds and yet, with all those cars, we expected that there would be only one or two trails littered with eager hikers.

We quickly realized that we were wrong. We saw 5 people in the first two hours and none after that. And there were hundreds of trails, crisscrossing each other across the lush forest, with only the occasional dollop of a paint marking to lead the way. We lost our trail and then picked it up again, or thought we did. We lost our way on the map, carried on walking for miles and then thought we found it again. Neither of us had even been lost on a hike before. Starting in New York seemed unlikely, embarrassing even.

Then we ran out of water. We had hiked for close to 10 miles and had no idea where we were. Our map only showed one trail, one trail which we had ventured far, far off. Our phones had intermittent reception. We started tripping over rocks. We told jokes, cursed when we lost the paint markers, looked at our watches and ate the last of our granola bars.

Finally, we ran into a guide, one of those efficient types with iodine tablets at the ready and a GPS unit strapped to his backpack. He shook his head at us, told us off for being so foolish. Then he feed and watered us and sent us on our way again, with the warning, “Take the red and white makers down this trail and then, when you see a blue maker, follow it to the right. The blue is hard to see but don’t miss it. If you miss it, you’ll go even further into the woods and then, you’ll be shit out of luck.”

Shit out of luck, is not the kind of phrase that you ignore. It is the kind of phrase that makes you certain to scour every tree for a goddamn blue marker. Luckily, 6 hours after we had set off, we got back to our car, sweaty, scratched and aching after an unexpectedly grueling 15 mile hike.

I’ll admit that it was a tad scary, and we were more than a tad foolish, but it was good to know that we could get lost an hour from the city. It was comforting to remember that nature still makes the rules, and that, for all the urban chaos of the city, there is still wilderness on our doorstep.

The Good Life Project

Have you heard of Jonathan Fields?

Jonathan Fields & the good life projectIf not, let me give you the two second introduction – a former big firm lawyer, he is now a phenomenally successful author, entrepreneur and speaker. He’s one of the cool, popular kids in the startup world. The kind of guy you want to learn from. I had recently emailed him about getting together for coffee but our schedules had been too busy and the meet up had been put on hold indefinitely.

My weekend had slid past in a lazy summer haze of boating and beaching and seafood gluttony, when I had an email from Jonathan on Monday evening.

new york sailing

new york summer beaches

Would I like to be interviewed for his new venture, The Good Life Project. No big deal, he was just inviting 10 people he knew in the city to take part in a relaxed (his words not mine) Charlie Rose style interview where we would talk about what it means to lead a good life. The videos would be broadcast online and released to his 37, 000 fans (if we go by twitter). Oh and by the way, the interview was on Wednesday. Was I in?

Of course I was in. I was flattered, excited and ever-so-slightly terrified. Public speaking is one thing. I’m used to it. I know what I’ll say and I know I’ll have the floor. An interview is something entirely different.

But I had to do it. Because this was a chance to put my mouth where my pen had been and well and truly give in to the idea of being vulnerable.

The day rolled around. A steamy New York day, the filming was running late, 2pm had rolled into 2:30, half an hour was left on the memory card, four cameras were trained on my face and three lights were flicked on. A bead of sweat crested my ankle and fell into my sandal as Jonathan turned to ask the first question.

I would like to tell you that I was eloquent and funny and composed. I’m not sure if I was any of those things. I imagine I was rather more rattled and out of control. I know that I stuttered up a storm. The cameras cut out twice and we had to begin again, palms were raised in a 5 minute warning.

And yet I survived. I felt slightly sick afterwards but I said what I wanted, or close enough, and I got my first taster of what it might be like to start marketing this book that I’m bringing out into the world.

Not easy, not a walk in the park, but exciting and funny and awkward and well worth it. Because ultimately I think that living a good life means striving, living on the edge of uncertainty, laughing at ourselves and embracing those imperfect moments when we recklessly human.

When stuttering comes in handy

Have you ever been pulled over by one of these?

stuttering police officer

Imagine pulling up to the lock your bike outside a bar, slipping your helmet-hair free, and looking down to see a motorized tricycle cruising up next to you.

‘ID please’

Blank look.

‘Driver’s license please’

For my bike?

‘This is an English license’

Indeed, it is.

‘Do you know the American rules of the road?’

All of them? ‘Drive on the right, stop at red lights…’

‘Do you know that bikes are meant to ride on the road, not the sidewalk?’

In the resulting silence, he strenuously copies down information from my license to a ticket pad. In saner moments, I may have agreed that yes, bikes should do a better job of sticking to the rules. Yet, when it dawns on me that he is going to charge me for the 5 feet of pavement that I rode along to lock up my bike on a signpost, I’m not sure if I should laugh, scream or roll my eyes.

He gets bored of waiting for an answer, ‘I have a mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm mmmmmmotorbike and I can’t just pull up and d d d d d drive on the sidewalk whenever I please can I?’

He stutters. It shocks me for a moment. It pushes away the anger, “No, no you can’t. I won’t d d d d d do it again.’

I don’t stutter on purpose, I don’t do it to get his sympathy. And yet, it changes something.

I think about mentioning the National Stuttering Association, or even my book, but the moment isn’t right. It might look like I’m pushing my luck.

He lets me off, with a warning, and the bar buys me a round on the house.

New York Adventures: The boys in blue

As I write this my hands are shaking slightly, my heart is thumping a little more fiercely than normal, adrenaline is lighting up my nerve-endings and I can hear the faint murmur of joking policemen on the street below.

I’m not sure if I should be grateful or embarrassed.

I just called the NYPD to my apartment.new york police department

Half an hour ago, at about 1:30am, I got up to open the bathroom door and it was locked. Not just stuck, or cranky, properly locked. And Jeremy was in the other room. Not ideal. Definitely not great news. But how bad could it be? We had been home all night. Jeremy came over to check it out. We were joking, worrying about logistics. Then we heard something. A shuffle perhaps. The front door had been unlocked, had someone snuck in without us knowing?

We did not stop to think why an intruder would take the time to break into our apartment only to hide in our bathroom. Instead, we stood very close to the door and listened. Close enough that we would have been trampled if someone had come flying out the door, close enough that we thought we heard something else. Jeremy wedged his foot up on the door. We stood there for a moment, petrified.

Finally, I knocked on the door across the hall and woke up our neighbors. Barrel-chested and dopey from sleep, the husband answered the door as he pulled on his trousers. “What’s going on honey?” I fumbled and stumbled and explained that I suspected there might be an intruder in my bathroom. He looked surprised but not exactly scared, not exactly sure why I had woken him up to tell him such wonderful news. “Well, lets call the cops.” For some reason the thought had not even crossed my mind.

So with the couple peering out from their doorframe, and Jeremy leaning against the door, I dialed 911 for the first time in my life. I spoke to the women for three minutes, hung up, and the ‘boys’ arrived in four.

Five of them buzzed the door bell, a blur of close cropped hair and navy blue uniforms came pounding up the creaking stairs. “We’re here now. Step aside”. Like some scene from the Wire, they cocked their guns and broke down the measly door.

There was no one there.

The couple from next door looked dazed, Jeremy and I looked sheepishly relieved, and the cops made some joke about gargantuan rats in the area. It was all blissfully anti-climatic. As they marched away, their bulk taking up most of the staircase, I felt ridiculously grateful to be living in a New York neighborhood where five policemen will be at my door in five minutes flat. Ridiculously grateful to my poor neighbors and Jeremy and the good-humored boys in blue.

Best of January list

Last January, Jeremy and I had just moved to New York. We were wading our way through snowdrifts and watching Brooklynites cross-country skiing through Prospect Park. Snowmageddon was upon us and we were hibernating in our very small sublet contemplating why on earth we were putting ourselves through it.

This year, the weather is far less frightful and we are exploring the hidden nooks of the city that we have come to love. Looking at this list of highlights, it seems like January means red wine, lots of food, dreaming of escapes and some resolution-induced mayhem. At least it does for me. What does it mean for you?

Starting off the year on a high note with these guys.

Eating fondue and drinking spicy red wine by the fire here.

Celebrating with friends and some ‘energetic’ dance moves here.

Starting my days off virtuously with the muesli from these guys.

Slurping for a steaming bowl of amazing ramen here after long city walks.

Tearing into these delicious pizzas.

Exploring Koreatown and ending up at this hidden place for lunch.

Tucking into this chili at home while watching movies.

Throwing out the resolutions and making these outrageously good pancakes.

Thawing out in this futuristic coffee spot on Orchard.

Dreaming of escaping here.

What’s on your list?