Jill Lepore on how “The Star-Spangled Banner” became America’s national anthem: http://nyr.kr/1n0EUOp
Illustration by Simone Massoni.
an ongoing story about moving west to east.
The flight was bumpy as a massive drencher pummeled the west coast. I landed at John Wayne for the first time ever, a small airport in Southern California clean and bright and full of Orange County types briskly wheeling expensive-looking luggage.
My sister arrived in her new SUV. I ran out from baggage claim bumping my unfortunate three-wheeled Samsonite behind. We pulled away from the curb, increasing speed beneath the sagging rainclouds. Sheets of rain released to the mountains, canyons and freeways upon which we drove. The puddles resembled black ice; slippery and dangerous.
I was returning to Southern California for the first time after moving to New York one year ago.
My body was tired. I felt worn out, starting with a pinch at my temples that lurched up into my skull then downwards.
It was either an immediate result of the copious amount of alcohol I’d uncharacteristically consumed in an effort to deal with the unbearable polar vortex, or the outcome of a quite unfashionable decision to wear ill-fitting eyeglasses for a prolonged period of time.
The girl across the aisle sneezed and impulsively I looked over. She had smooth brown hair, a light tan, and wore shorts paired with a smart-looking windbreaker. She wore strappy sandals with perfectly polished toenails and fingernails of the exact color, fingers idly flipping through an unmemorable women’s periodical.
My nails were pretty much sawed off at this point, chewed down to little nubs as a result of stress and cowardice and the short-term pursuit of makeshift relief.
My hair was dull with about 2 inches of dark root poking out from the base. I wore knee-high winter boots covered in a thick maquillage of grey-white urban detritus that made it impossible — unlike my hair — to determine true color.
Buried in an overcoat I rarely took off these days, my pale skin hadn’t seen the light of day in months. Something smelled like take-out and I had a feeling it was me.
I sighed and picked up the New Yorker, going back into an article about Jeff Bezos and Amazon.com while trying to forget what I had allowed New York to do to me.
The plane cut down through thick clouds and eventually found ground. We bumped along for a bit before concluding with an abrupt stop. You know the part — they punch the brake a bunch of times then really give it a go.
A short pause, then a ripple of applause broke out from the crowd. “Irony?” I thought and immediately glanced around. But it wasn’t. Oh yes, Southern California — the place where people applaud for random reasons like when a movie ends or when the sun sets over Venice beach, or in this case when an airplane lands.
God, I missed this place. Fourteen months after moving to New York I was nearly home. I dropped the magazine as my hands moved to applause position. The girl across the aisle smiled in my direction, and before we made eye contact I went to adjust the time on my watch instead.
The palm trees swayed and bent as if to acknowledge my homecoming. It was a new adventure in an old place, not many miles from where I called home for nearly a decade.
My sister and her fiancé had recently purchased a home in Orange County. It was lovely — a spanish revival where everything felt comfortable. Plush towels, a bathrobe waiting for me on the back of the guest room door (a guest room!), and a couch one could get lost in for days.
I texted my mom. “Healing already.”
The hand soap smelled delightful.
We poured two glasses of red wine and turned the television on to the news. A weather woman was conveying the seriousness of the storm — an apparent dire situation consisting of lots of rain falling to the earth at once.
The rain was nothing compared to winter on the east coast, but there were other things I wasn’t prepared for.
For example, I was suddenly terrified of riding in cars. My eyes grew wide when we braked as I worriedly reached for the “oh shit” bar. I spent plenty of time in and out of cabs in New York, but somehow was nervous about the sheer force of an SUV careening down the freeway.
I used to dislike shopping malls and popular food chains, yet over the course of the next twenty-four hours I’d come to appreciate these familiar things.
We cruised the makeup counters at Macy’s and stopped for lunch at Panera, enjoying the experience of being regular people doing ordinary things.
I found a certain slice of joy in pushing a huge cart around an enormous grocery store. We gently weaved around other traffic — house folks reading labels, taking their time to make important culinary decisions.
My sister and I enjoyed the slow pace we took during the time we spent together. Our relationship was tried-and-true and so were the actual physical locations of where we happened to be. However conventional, all of this brought to the surface the concept of home.
I started thinking - I could create a home here.
I could live near the ocean.
I’d run on the boardwalk every day and wave hello to the neighbors.
It wasn’t crowded and crazy and everyone wasn’t clinging to the principal of simply getting by.
New York is a struggle. One must work hard to sustain the lifestyle required to live here.
Interestingly enough, the quality of living isn’t even that high.
Sidewalks are crumbly, the subways stink, and there’s trash everywhere. One finds themselves elbowing around a tiny bodega for essentials like 2-ply toilet paper and cat food. Yet somehow it’s the most wonderful place on earth. I look around and see strangers I’m proud of.
It’s a different kind of home. It’s the America I believe in.
On the flip side, Orange County is not diverse. It is by no means an inexpensive place to live either. It’s beautiful in other ways, the ways one finds in nature — lush green landscapes, sandy beaches, a limitless sun and vast blue sky.
After three days I returned to New York on schedule, reluctant to abandon my new dream. My therapist, a true New Yorker, bluntly told me to stop living in the past. “Live in the now,” she said. “Look on the bright side of things. Yes, it’s stinky here. Yes, the subways are disgusting. But this is New York City! Do you really want to live back there again?”
That night I met a good friend from Los Angeles. She was in town on business and I was happy for the opportunity to get together. We’ve known each other for over a decade — long enough to see the other person go through stuff, those crazy ups and downs of life.
Occasionally, one of us would go through a phase that made it challenging for the other person to find the original version buried way back in there. During those times we’d go away for a few months and later return, finding that our friendship was still intact along with the same foundations that built it in the first place — good humor and similar curiosities.
Like my relationship with New York I had to bank (or be) an occasional headache to earn the warm familiarity of being welcomed back with love.
Perhaps the idea of “home” isn’t physical. Perhaps it’s everything we’ve collected based on where we choose to invest our energy and subsequently are the most cognitively aware. It’s a feeling of familiarity and mutual understanding - the camaraderie, joy, patience, and at times endurance that builds credence and plants roots.
Home wasn’t what I had left behind back in California. It was something I carried with me and needed to be re-lit from within. The people you love keep the flames burning, and the location is complimentary.
Approximately one year ago today, we drove across a bridge.
His Dad and Uncle arrived from New Jersey in a truck, into which we loaded 7 large boxes along with a twitching mattress and box spring.
It was a sunny day, energized by the fact that we were finally moving into our new place together. We were excited for the possibilities, the unknowns that would play out over the course of the next year as we left everything we knew behind.
I gazed out the window as we drove out of Manhattan and into Williamsburg, looking ahead at the vast blue sky — clear with soft strands of feathery clouds drifting high and almighty. The spring breeze blew gently at the gathered cobwebs of my psyche, disengaging some of the past to make way for the present.
We propped the second elevator open with a box, methodically loading each one in. We made it to the fourth floor in two trips plus a third for the bed.
His things were already there. Some of my stuff was, too — things we kept stored at his place in LA until it was his time to move east. Records, books, pots and pans, dishes, clothing, electronics. There were golf clubs, an ironing board, a turntable, a bocce ball set. Boxes and boxes, giving new meaning to the word “stuff.”
The reality of the decision, the literal and figurative contents of a move cross-country were about to be unpacked. We looked around the raw, open loft filled with crates of our former lives. We made it across the bridge…now what?
As we’d soon discover, the immediate future would be spent exploring the new that appeared remarkable in such a state — places that would be commonplace in any other scenario. Where should we go for brunch? This produce is so cheap! That neighbor is weird!
Other time is spent grieving what was left behind. The past — idyllic in retrospect and worn thin with ownership, teases you in the rearview mirror with its brilliant sunset. We knew we had to stop looking back. It was our mutually calculated decision to move forward, but in the next year we’d question it all — consciously and unconsciously, yearning for certain elements of how things used to be.
The loft was the first and only place we saw.
I saw potential. He saw it for what it was — a massive, undeveloped room with no privacy whatsoever.
We were both right.
In essence it was a large room of cement, brick, and glass, nine-hundred square feet with high ceilings that likely tripled the total walking space. There were four windows presenting a splendid view into Manhattan and the northern parts of Williamsburg.
I still come home at night and glance out the window to check the colors of the Empire State Building, an impulse now as routine as checking the microwave clock. When the US Supreme Court declared Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional last June, it was resplendent in a vertical rainbow of pride.
The building itself is historic in nature, dating back to the 1920’s when it served as a shoe polish factory. Two blocks east of the East River, it shares a nook with the also now-defunct (and soon to be demolished) Domino Sugar Factory. It was easy to imagine what this particular Brooklyn nabe may have been like long ago — full of factories and warehouses with sloping sidewalks and winding streets, not yet ready to imagine the steady pedestrian traffic filled with European tourists and omnipresent hipster culture.
We liked Williamsburg right away. Plus, it was easy — just one subway stop from Manhattan. The search was exhausting when we looked for my place six months earlier, so why put ourselves through all that again? We found something that worked and felt lucky. So we did it.
The biggest downside was the distance from the nearest subway stop. During our first winter we’d walk the full mile, trudging side by side in big boots and layers of clothing (my highest count was 5). I’d wrap a scarf tightly around my face from the eyes down to the point where breathing would fog my glasses but at least the nose was guarded from the piercing cold.
Eventually I became proud of my newfound urban abilities, bounding out into the cold bright mornings rather than remaining terrified of the concept of winter in general. I discovered that the secret (most of the time, and this may be obvious) is to wear ridiculously warm socks and gloves — strange artifacts found at the local camping store, unabashedly marketed to the enacting urban bourgeoisie.
That first day we unpacked as much as we could, for as long as we could. Then we got hungry.
We started walking and came across a tiny restaurant called PT. It was a typical Brooklyn establishment, located in a small, dimly lit space with the night’s specials scrawled on a chalkboard.
Our first dinner together in Williamsburg was special, even magical in a way. We had walked into a new world, strangers in this foreign land. For the next few months most ordinary experiences would appear this way, dusted with the glittery newness of novelty and delight.
While we had everything we needed from a functional perspective the loft didn’t feel like home for months. We figured things out as we went along (what should we do with those hooks?) and got by with what we could (what’s for dinner?). Nearly a year later we have yet to hang any art — perhaps this weekend we’ll finally mark it off the list. All in all the place is comfortable and relatively tranquil in the way necessary for city living, and with a newfound sense of minimalism we add small gestures of homey ornamentation as time goes on.
With that, it didn’t take long for everyday nuances to outweigh the romance of our new adventure together. The biggest was the limitations of the physical space itself. In case you were wondering, there is a major downside to living in a loft which is primarily not having any walls. The only door goes into a small bathroom with no windows, which can be a nice place to hide — once I did a phone session in there with my therapist — and it’s nice for the dead of winter when a twice-daily shower seems like an excellent idea.
Still, humans adapt quickly to new environments, and we did exactly that. We learned to use eye pillows and earplugs, wear headphones and install divider curtains. One of us learned to walk faster while the other purposefully moved slower. We came to love the limits of our loft and the strangeness of our streets and the frenzy of New York.
The most challenging element about moving forward together was learning to live in an unpredictable framework that was still under assembly. It’s difficult to let go of a familiar past, especially the established friendships and routine places that made it so good in the first place.
It was only months and months later that I began to fully live in the present. I woke up one morning and realized what a gift it is to be able to live in a weird artsy loft in an old building in Brooklyn with a view of Manhattan and the person I love by my side.
Plus we all have to move forward in some capacity, anyway — mentally, emotionally, physically, sometimes everything all at once.
We now come home to each other after walking from the subway in the sun or rain, sleet or snow. Everything, our “stuff,” was moved here . Now we were here, too.
The adventure of moving in together was over and the experience of living our lives here had only just begun. Now we had to adjust to it, or it had to adjust to us.
You think you can.
I mean, in theory, if you can conceive of something it can be done and relatively easily enough at that.
Right? It’s simple.
The difficult concepts to grasp are rarely realized. They’re tanglier balls of yarn, requiring years of planning and brute talent to achieve.
The easy to perceive must be low-hanging fruit in the path to success. Therefore in one’s mind, if it can be imagined, then why even try? If, for example, in the creation of post-modern art, you just could do it if you really wanted to?
Jump right in, sacrifice a few Saturday nights for the cause. You’re a martyr; you’re serious.
Tell everyone. The rest will take care of itself.
Perhaps this is where the term “wantrepreneur” comes from, an adage sprung from the alleged slash generation (ex: Writer/DJ/Producer). We proclaim to do it all, even if the output is somewhat self-serving and to a degree lackluster.
Ambitious people usually harbor one (or all) of the following traits:
They perpetually want what they can’t have; they think they can have it all; or they’re too impatient to try all the angles.
Perhaps this is why post-modern art has lost its general sense of identity.
To do something great the only person motivating you is yourself — everyone else is too busy concerning themselves with their own survival. Therein lies the flaw and the Unfair of the whole system. How will you keep going? Because how the hell do you know if you’re any good?
Ambitious people also harbor a rich sense of delusion.
We’re so amazing yet our day job is draining and there won’t be time left in the day outside of binge-watching Scandal and drinking bottles of cheap wine while imagining a brighter future wherein we can finally do what we “really” want to do.
Paradoxically, the reality is that without that sense of delusion you’re reduced to being ambitious about being ambitious, and simply too conflicted to get it done or even try.
Technically, the most rewarding part should be the process itself.
Passion is not craving some allegorical gold star. It’s dedication — dirty, messy, nose-to-the-grindstone work. It’s coffee and late nights and getting really mad all the time over the little details (like for example using too many pronouns).
It’s not as sexy as some hand-lettered, calligraphic print of the word “hustle” but it is the timeless truth.
I stopped writing when I was 12 after a drunk uncle on my mom’s side told me that he wanted to read my stories. I picked it back up twenty years later, only because it was something I had to do in order to make sense of the world around me at the time.
Rumination is hard in LA. In New York it’s a fact of life.
And there’s a difference between accepting failure and not working hard enough to take a square shot at success in the first place.
I’m glad I hit pause on my radio show. It became the impetus that brought me to this page. Despite what some asshole says on Facebook, failure IS an option. It paves the way for bigger and better things.
My mixes are in the archives but the process lives on. I’ve learned that one significant hurdle of creating good work is the mental anguish that lies distinctly beyond any point of generational languor. It’s a physical and mental game so exhausting since in the end you’re solely relying on, and battling against, yourself.
I’d work it over in my mind countless times before even stepping foot inside the studio.
When I was there I’d bang my head against the wall. Not because I didn’t have an audience (or a key) but because it wasn’t good enough work yet — it wasn’t even in the neighborhood of being good.
I’d get so mad when I couldn’t get it right on the first take, or even the tenth. After the twentieth I’d have a demo in my hands soaked in blood and fervor. With cradled, shaking hands I’d proffer it to an established DJ, grateful for his kindness in mentoring my progress. As he listened I watched him pull a face — he cringed, because it wasn’t ready just yet.
Eventually the twentieth take dwindles to a tenth, then a fifth. I sounded more natural on the mic and the mixes became tighter. I felt more comfortable. And then, something miraculous happened — I stopped giving a shit what anyone thought about it. I started doing it for myself.
And oddly enough, that’s when the work got good.
Much has been said about the deluded self-confidence of entrepreneurs. I believe this applies to artists too - but it mostly arrives during the mastery of process.
The confidence is in the sweat. It’s in the passion.
You take what you’ve earned after all those takes and confidence quietly follows.
You build a support system designated for healthy maturity and growth. Even if you have no idea where it will lead, you meet people who can help you find a general direction.
Most of us need to be a spokesperson on behalf of our art. We perform double duty as an agent, provocateur, coach. Then we go home and pace nervously in the kitchen drinking more crap wine, because we know — despite the decent progress we’ve made — that the work isn’t ready yet. The wantrepreneur baby has no clothes.
You attend didactically-minded gatherings involving sweaty handshakes with strangers and copious amounts of free alcohol, otherwise known as networking. You get lost on the way, swearing to yourself in quick huffs of air.
You take a moment to pace nervously in front of the door, eventually summoning some semblance of self-composure that involves a smile that may or may not look more like a smirk order to appear casual as though you simply decided to stroll right in.
No big deal.
Smile and nod and try not to panic when someone asks you what you’re working on.
Simultaneously, deliberately kick out that annoying voice in your head — you know the one. The coach and cynic, the lawyer and defrauder, the demonic inner critic that wants to destroy you from the inside out anytime someone so much as raises an eyebrow when you describe what you’re passionate about doing in life.
You leave covered in sweat. Your armpits are wet and you’re tired of talking. Otherwise, you leave the same as you came in, perhaps with the addition of two business cards tucked safely in your back pocket.
After some time you get good, real good. Work the room, collect some cards, become your most effusive and exuberant self. After the twentieth event it becomes easier. You have a routine down. You go alone, leaving the demons at home.
Until, you move to a new city and decide to pursue a completely different craft.
In Los Angeles, one can get by through smiling and nodding a lot. Be social, ask questions, be sympathetic, have a cocktail. Act bemused, conspiratorial even. You will be sized up but generally accepted once someone “feels” that they “understand” you.
In New York it’s more important to be direct. They want to know who you are, what you do, and how you can help them.
That’s it. Tell them what you do, and ask for what you want.
Smile less. Speak less.
Throw in a prop, like a decent pair of glasses (they MUST be prescription, don’t even think about fronting there).
Do not wear fun shoes unless by fun we mean clever and in general their estimated pre-tax worth is greater than or equal to $300.
You learn quickly to sharpen up.
And, of course, you will be judged.
I have a tough time telling people that I like to write. My old show — now I could talk about that all day. It took years to get comfortable enough to do that, because I struggled to get the work to a place that didn’t suck. And while I never got great, I did learn what it takes to get there.
Whichever the craft, many of the same challenges still apply. Those self-confidence and mental barriers will always be there, clinging along for the ride.
When it comes down to it we all have a passion of some sort. And when you’re putting in that deep work that is so meaningful it doesn’t even matter if it sees the light of day — that’s where the good stuff begins. You’re the hero.
I’ll never know if I’m any good. But that’s what it means to be great.