“The author divides her time between…”
Paris and Santa Barbara. San Francisco and Tuscany.
Portland, Maine, and Kealakekua, Hawaii. The New Hampshire woods and Manhattan.
Yeah, yeah. Los Angeles and Tahiti. Positano and Cape Cod. Bozeman and Tokyo.
God, how I hate these declarations: often the final flourish in an About the Author bio, generally found on the backs of book jackets or at the ends of articles. I mean no disrespect, but—really. Don’t you at least briefly hate these, too? Or at least raise an eyebrow?
Quickly: what’s your first thought, viewing such claims?
Mine snaps down like a mousetrap:
Well, how delightful. It only falls to the rest of us wretched peasants―we who’ve just one home―to envision the Author relishing this stately division.
Of course, certain presumptions are built in: lucky-devil Author has earned or inherited or married or partnered a financial instrument sufficient to arrange Living The Dream. (Occasionally: Author lives and works in Y, partner lives and works in X; the couple migrates back and forth.) More subtly, such biographical glitter suggests that the author has carefully chosen what she/he holds to be the two best possible places on earth—and the best times of year for living in each of them.
Are you, reader, presently nested in either of those places? No? Ah, too bad for you, then.
End of story.
Except, not. The casual report of two homes in two locations sets rolling, in a reader’s mind, a little caravan of unwanted thoughts that begin wandering off in different directions like a loosed herd of confused moose. First thoughts might be envious: Gee, I wish I could live that way, too. Other thoughts might mosey into a dark forest of dismay, in which the reader accuses herself of not having done so well—not paid the right kind of attention, not acted prudently or shrewdly enough, failed to sell film rights—whatever it would have taken to afford setting up and squatting in two homes in two fabulous locales.
A friend once insisted that when you return from an extended trip, you have about ten minutes to clearly see your own surroundings for what they are. Generally, the impression makes you wince: endearing, but funky. Slightly shabby, if lovable. Those back-door stairs―splintery. That front porch plank, sagging deeper. When did the paint wear off the wainscoting? How did the windows get so dirty; the screens so nasty? And yikes, those smudge marks.
Jacket flap declarations (“divides her time between…”) have a way of waking our personal ten minutes of clarity with a small crack of lightning―kind of like the Bride of Frankenstein―every time we read them.
Maybe most authors don’t give a damn about what gongs are struck in a reader’s head when they view these graceful claims. Possibly the authors hardly think about it or assume the material gets ignored. Maybe they didn’t write it themselves; maybe their publicists did.
Interestingly, I’ve known people with two homes. Sometimes one home is seasonal: a summer retreat, untenable in winter. Either way, to me the reality of owning two places sounds…unsettled. How, I’ve wondered, could you really feel situated―as the British say, sorted―if you must have two of everything, keep two of everything in good repair, and relatedly, realized too often that your favorite version of the desired thing (clothing, shoes, tools, pills, sporting goods, kitchen paraphernalia) is stowed at the other place? (The other place will inevitably acquire a name, shorthand for easy reference: “The Cabin,” “The Apartment,” “New York” “Shangri-La.”) I’ve also wondered about the costs and effort of maintaining two venues: houseplants, pets, bills, mail, and routine domestic chores. I think as well of the strange, human, greener grass syndrome: feeling pulled toward the other property, no matter where you may presently be camped. (Is it Tolstoy or Chekhov who depicts a character longing for the dacha once installed in the city, then immediately craving the pied-à-terre after removing himself to the country?)
Does the above qualify as sour grapes? As a way of telling ourselves, “since we can’t afford such luxury, let’s find reasons to decide that it’s a crappy way to live?”
I can neither confirm nor deny.
Let me distract you at this point with a game my husband and I never tire of playing. It often starts while we’re in motion, staring at other locales: walking, driving, in a plane or on a train.
If we could afford it, the game always begins—quickly appended by, “if Joan were able to sell film rights to one of her novels,” followed by Joan’s swallowing hard—which place would we like to live in, part of the year? Where would we just flat-out buy a house or cottage or apartment, because we are pretending we absolutely could?
This is a hella delicious game. Convenient. Gratifying. It costs nothing. It risks nothing—nobody else knows we’re doing it; therefore we court no judgment, no contrarianism, no scorn. Best, it’s wide-open as the sky. All options are feasible; money’s no object. And for a festive bonus―since husband and self have internalized each other’s habits and natures―a pre-established hierarchy of biases and prejudices automatically clicks into position. We’re in heated agreement.
Assumption one: No wintering. We don’t do cold.
Assumption two: Blue and green. That’s code for natural beauty. Only world-class cities (London, Paris, Rome, New York) may be semi-exempt from the blue-and-green criterion. And even they, thank God, through handsome parks and appending countryside, may offer precious slices of it.
Assumption three: Humane, arts-loving, simpatico vibes. A diversity of ages, ethnicities, demographics. A dash of whimsy, of playfulness, wouldn’t hurt. (France is good at that, believe it or not.)
The rest of our preferences are easy to predict. Vibrant culture, physical ease, access to healthy food. No sense listing various talismanic places here—everyone has their own such list. Then, depending how exercised we’ve become, we go through our list of contenders, venue by venue, and unpack each one―and ultimately (wait for it) decide why each choice is perhaps finally not quite the bulls-eye choice: why in fact it’s probably better (freer, cheaper, easier) just to rent some space in that place whenever we feel like it, rather than buy outright. Soon we pretty much forget about even renting there, and we feel better yet. Think of all the money and heartache we’ve just saved! Realtor’s fees! Gasoline! Guilt for not being wherever we aren’t!
Then we resume the lives we’re leading―a little lighter around the heart, sighing with refreshed clarity―noticing too, with brighter pleasure as we go about our days, the abundance of particulars that make us happy about where we actually live.
As I say: all this costs nothing, except some thinking and talking. And the reward’s real: renewed gratitude and appreciation for our present humble set-up.
Here’s a cousin-game to the above. Though it involves gusts of imagination, it feels effortless while in progress. As reliably as a tapped knee causes a shin to kick, whenever we visit an attractive city or town we immediately begin to think, in the course of exploring it, Hey, We Could Live Here.
It’s the damnedest phenomenon.
We begin to stare with great urgency at the layouts of neighborhoods, conditions of houses, downtowns, and landscapes fore and aft. We start counting up cafes, libraries, theaters, parks, schools, ethnic eateries; qualities of public transport, ratios of trees to streets. We search people’s faces (for expressions of contentment); we size up their general bearing and bien-être. We have gone so far as to drop in at the local Chamber of Commerce to collect a packet of informational flyers intended for new residents, usually titled Welcome To Our City.
Weather figures, naturally. All the elements named in the pre-established hierarchy figure. In our minds, rapidly, we set up a Typical Day in the New Location. We picture ourselves beginning that day holding a cup of excellent coffee, likely standing at a big, clean window, gazing out to the lovely lawns and fir trees (or the orange and lemon trees, or papaya and banana, or the desert cacti, or the exciting, hipster-urban center several stories below us) that we’ve so long admired. In no time our eyes start to shine, our voices to quicken, as each item on our list of necessities seems to be checked. We could ride our bikes from home to the library, and to coffee. Terrific coffee! Bookstores! Food trucks! We could subscribe to the Little Theater. Take or teach classes. I’m sure there’s a gym here somewhere. How pleasant these streets, this park, this art museum!
And then―at first slowly; then rather fast―we forget about it.
Other tasks tug at our attention. If the adored city is part of a tour, we carry on visiting different cities and towns, where similar, whirlwind romances flare up. Like children freshly fixated on a new toy, we swiftly shed the last fixation: the town or city where, mere days or weeks ago, we’d meticulously begun to plot to spend the rest of our lives. We seldom look back.
What confounds me is how easily this happens: how lightly we float away from what began as something close to passion. My guess? That it’s the intangibles, the unseen furnishings, and assets of our present setting, which make themselves felt and call us back―with very little conscious awareness on our parts. Those intangibles include a deeply-entrenched network (small but sturdy) of friends. None of them is Einstein, but most are thoughtful and kind. Most have known us so long that the simple fact of their nearby presence―the embedded understanding of their automatic, earnest support―seems at this point to help flesh out our own comprehension of ourselves. Were we to yank up stakes and drop them elsewhere, it could take, we sense, quite some long time to meet and make new friends―to move past the pleasant-novelty-of-contact phase into a state of genuine friendship. At our ages, that chunk of time signifies. Other familiarities fan out for review: patterns of movement, proximity to other cities where we have family, other longtime friends, and other pleasurable patterns. All these considerations urge us, paraphrasing Fagin’s immortal words, to “think we’d better think it out again.”
It might not, after all, be the most enviable state―touching down by turns in two communities, without meaningfully belonging to either.
Perhaps, of course, that’s not always the case.
This game, by the way, is called Location Sluts.
Might it look impressive, do you think, in a biographical statement?
About the Author
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of six books of literary fiction and an essay collection about the writing life. Her latest novel, All The News I Need, won the Juniper Prize for Fiction. Joan’s work has received many honors and awards, including the Richard Sullivan Prize for Short Fiction and two ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Awards, one of them for Because You Have To: A Writing Life. She lives in Northern California.