Thursday, February 18, 2010

Accidental Tourist*

Rose: “You know, I kept losing that apartment every time I turned around. I would head east to the grocery store and turn west to get back again... and I would always be wrong. Always.”

- Film “Accidental Tourist”

For the later part of our winter vacation, I decided to take the kids to New York to see family. It’s been nearly two months since our last visit, and at least six weeks until our next, if we visit for Passover. My husband can only take so many days off from work, so we came without him.

When I travel to Long Island without my husband, instead of going all the way from Massachusetts, westward through Connecticut, and then taking the bridge south to head eastward to Long Island, I prefer to take the Bridgeport ferry in Connecticut, which brings me to Port Jefferson on Long Island. It costs about $50 but it shaves an hour or two of driving, part of it in New York City congestion.

At first, I was uneasy about doing the drive because it would be the longest I’d ever driven alone, but I’m used to it now. It’s funny when we enter Port Jefferson because that was the big town next to the University my husband and I attended for undergraduate and graduate school. Once I get near Stony Brook University, the route is the same as I did for all of those years. It’s like I’ve worn such a groove that I could do the commute with my eyes closed.

As I made my way down route 25A, something has always changed. This time I noticed that Strawberry Fields, where I had often stopped for coffee and a gourmet sandwich, is now Dave’s Catering. By the time I get to Kings Park, I spied a restaurant that had been the Longhorn Diner when I was a child, and had some other name that I can’t recall, is now The Hokey Pokey Diner. Hokey name.

Across from the ill-named diner is a bakery called Park Bake Shop. I always think it says “Pork” instead of “Park”, so when it says the food is Kosher; it surprises me for a second. After all these years, I should get it in my head that it’s Park since it’s in Kings Park.

The town also used to have an asylum called Kings Park Psychiatric Center, which was turned into a state park, called Nissequogue River State Park in 2003. People used to say it was haunted. If so, I wonder if the ghosts like the new bike trail.

Finally, I made it to the East Northport border, where I grew up. To the left (aptly named, Townline Road), I can meander through the roads where the dump used to be. But now it’s capped into funny-looking grassy hills and there’s an incinerator. To the right, is the nicer part of town on Bread and Cheese Hollow Road. Quaint name, right? But I continue on straight ahead on Pulaski Road into the town I lived in since I was nine-years-old, to the house that I’ve visited since I was eighteen-years-old.

Around age eighteen, I read Accidental Tourist by Ann Tyler. At the time, I remember being appalled that Macon’s sister, Rose was so used to living in her childhood home that she left her new apartment and husband to retreat back to the familiar. The husband eventually moved into the house, thereby saving their marriage. I could never imagine being in that kind of rut.

Looking back, it was accidental that I haven’t traveled more. I thought I’d go away to college, but my parents were finishing a messy divorce that cost my father a figure I can’t bear to write down. I couldn’t ask him for the dormitory money on top of tuition. My now husband decided to also commute to school to keep our relationship intact.

I didn’t mean to go to the same college for undergraduate and graduate school. After two years at another college, I finished my B.A. at Stony Brook University. I even attended a couple of other colleges when I was deciding what I wanted to for graduate school. But when my husband and I applied for programs, it was the only college that waived tuition and gave us stipends.

When it was time for my husband to do a post-doc, although he did get into some labs in New York City, the lab in Cambridge seemed like the best place for him. Since we’d never had much money, I wasn’t well traveled (my husband got to go to meetings, so he was more travel-savvy). The trepidation I had about moving forced me to confront the similarities between Rose and me. Even thought it was difficult to leave everyone behind, to go to a place where I had no friends, no job, and a three-year-old son to care for, I knew the change was good for me.

For those who have lived all over, who don’t rely on family, this may sound strange. And if you had asked me when I was eighteen, I would’ve said that all I wanted to do was get away from family and start anew. But I didn’t.

Two years ago, I attended the NESCBWI conference. The first night I went up to my hotel room; after I closed the door and went to settle in, I realized that it was the first time I had ever stayed at a hotel alone. Before then, I had taken vacations with my husband. I never needed to travel for work. So, here I was in my mid-30s, finally staying by myself in a hotel room. Last year, I got a roommate since there were two queen-sized beds. Might was well make friends and save on costs, right?

This is why I drive long distances, even though I hate it. Because I don’t want to be afraid to drive, like my mother is petrified to drive. She needs someone to show her how to drive to a new place at least twice, and it can’t be far from home. GPS has just made my anxiety driving to new places virtually non-existent. And although I don't like to fly, I love visiting once I land. My fears won't prevent me from living.

I don’t want to feel stuck. In a rut. This is why I write. Because writing, showing my work to others, editing based on their critique, and submitting is one of the scariest things I do. But I do it. I'm making a break from same old, same old.

* Same name as book by Ann Tyler


  1. And this is why my husband will get a cheesy grin from me when we paint one more room in our house or I finish another 10k on my book or I get a new haircut. Progress!! I love it!! It's so hard to be stuck in a rut if we're constantly moving forward. And it's so funny--when he talk about where you live it sounds so exotic and exciting to me. I've lived too much of my life in the boonies. ;) Not anymore, but still.

  2. Today I saw a coffee mug that said something about not being afraid to live the life you've dreamed, and of course I thought about how scary it can be to put yourself out there as a writer, but I won't let fear keep me from reaching for my dream of publication. That's what this post reminds me of - we can't let fears keep us from living life to the fullest.

  3. M. Gray, I guess living in my Area 4 neighborhood in a city is lively in comparison with rural life. (I love the food choices.) See my "Surveying the Squares" post for some crazy stories. I just want to make sure I take bigger risk in the next two decades than I have in the past two decades.

    Susan, I wear a pendant that reads, "Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. - Henry David Thoreau", to remind myself.

  4. Fear is the thing that either motivates, or stagnates us...
    I am facing some of my fears this year- in my writing, professional and personal arenas.
    Man! I hope I make it through!

    Oh- almost forgot... I posted a little something for you to brighten your day on my blog... enjoy!

  5. Hi

    Oh what a lovely post! You know I've not read the book but my favourite character - the one that I really gelled with in the film version of Accidental Tourist - was Rose. Seriously. Her loneliness and eagerness to find herself although marginal in the film - was for me the most uplifting. It was that passion and determination underneath that outer show of control that spoke volumes to me more so than the pain of the main characters.

    So good for you for confronting your fears and just going for it - you must never ever feel that you're stuck in a rut - it's very bad for the soul, it's very bad for your inner life. I wish you all the best with your writing career! For me, I'd not live without two things. My writing. Oh and my cat! :-) Well of course!

    Take care

  6. Dawn, facing our fears is the best we can do. I hope you make it through too! I'll visit your blog.

    Old Kitty, thanks for the compliment. I loved Rose's character too and was rooting for her. You should read the book. It was one of those times the film did justice to the book, but (of course) with the book you get a bit more.

    When I write at home, my cat often sits on my lap, so maybe she's my muse.

  7. "you gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face." - Eleanor Roosevelt

    I think writers are incredibly brave. Your blog has inspired me to break old patterns, learn to look at things that have happened in my life (both the good and bad) from a different perspective and to try something every week that scares me.

    Thank you :)

  8. Thanks, Kathleen. I'm glad you're inspired and making changes. I wish you success.

  9. I always thought I would move away from San Francisco but then I got into Berkeley so I stayed for college. Then all my friends (and boyfriend now husband) moved into SF for jobs and I was having the time of my life. The desire to leave disappeared. When my husband finished his PhD program, he got a post doc in the area and we settled down some more. I really didn't want to leave. Then, the big H happened. I couldn't not go to Harvard for graduate school so we went. And yeah, it was hard. We thought we'd go right back to California when I was done. Well, we were wrong again. My husband got a great opportunity in NYC and so we moved here instead. And you know what? I am so glad this all happened the way it did. Because even though I love CA and hope to move back someday, I am a better, more well-rounded person for having moved to the opposite coast and building another life out here.

  10. Nice blog. Congratulations.
    Daniel D. Peaceman , writer and editor

  11. Rebecca, when did you go to Harvard? Did you live in Cambridge?
    I like the Brooklyn area. I grew up in Queens until I was nine and then lived there after I got married.

    The more places I live, the more positives and negatives each place has, so even if I did go home, you miss parts of the other places. I can't imagine every living on Long Island again.

    Daniel, thanks. I'm glad you like it.

  12. This is another difference between East Coasters and West Coasters--we love our big SUVs and open spaces. Unfortunately for the Earth. When I was doing my graduate research, I traveled 6 1/2 hours Monday TO my study site and 6 1/2 hours on Friday BACK to my house and husband. It was hard, but looking back I loved that independance I developed. And I've always lived about the same distance (6 1/2 hours) away from my parents since I left home at 18.

    As far as being traveled, my husband's job takes him all over. But not me. :(

  13. 6 1/2 hours - that's a big commute, Jackee. How long did you do that?

    Since I can get to New York in 4 1/2 or 5 hours, I guess I've never lived far from my parents either. But I do it in a Mazda 3, which is great for parking on city street, but not very spacious for a family of four on a long trip.