Essays About


I am more adventurous in a small than a large city. In a large city, the hassle of getting anywhere imprisons me within a few square blocks of my hotel. Intimidated by complex subway routes and the cost of parking, I favor not the best restaurant but the nearest, so I can walk. I venture afield in the daytime but skip the nightlife, for I hate to be exhausted at evening's end and need a conquistador's will to get back to my bed. In a small city, I can park where I like and make reservations last minute, and thus I never abandon a plan for dread of logistics. In a large city there is more to do, but in a small city I do more.

On a recent day trip to Chicago, I observed a pervasive mood of impatience and anger. Weary of the wastelands of cornfields I had driven through, at first I relished the city's crush of cars and humanity. Yet, parsing the cacophony, I noticed horn-blowing was constant to the point of absurdity. Any driver's minor mistake was met by ruthless honking from ten directions. Impatient taxis seemed to demand the death of pedestrians, honking at cars who refused to run over them at crosswalks. Meanwhile, the sidewalks were turbulent rivers of humans in hurries, all of whom looked annoyed at having to dodge the rocks and rapids of each other. Annoyed myself, by day's end I regarded rudeness not as a trait of Chicagoans but as the inevitable result of living in cities, where everyone is always in your way.

We cannot live happily apart from our fellow men nor among them. We perish of boredom in the country and of fury in the city.

The problem with visiting historic cities is that we can only go in the present. Drawn by a magnificent past, we arrive to the deflating realization that this place that was once a stage is now a backwater. What greatness has issued from Florence in the last four centuries? I do not so much want to visit Florence, but to visit the Renaissance; I do not want to see Michelangelo's paintings, but Michelangelo painting. I would like to pick a century as well as a country when I travel.

Having felt letdown visiting history's has-beens, I prefer places whose moment is now. One travels to Hong Kong or San Francisco not for what they were, but what they are. San Francisco was a sand dune when Brunelleschi was building his dome and the Medici ousted Machiavelli, but now history ships from Silicon Valley while storied Florence is reduced to reminiscence. The best place to look for life is in the present, and in imagination of the past. Thus I read books about Florence, and book flights to California.

When I see nature bulldozed to build subdivisions, I feel anger toward the developers. But when I drive by later and see the new homes filled with families, my anger goes flaccid. Must not the families live somewhere? True, they had homes before, but those homes now house others, and the others' old homes house others too. Trace the trail of new construction back to its origin, and you arrive at a hospital maternity ward humming like a factory day and night, sending endless swaddled shipments of future homebuyers into the world. Developers build because parents beget. Suburbs sprawl because lovers do.

1.6 million people live within the 60 square kilometers of Manhattan Island—the densest population center in the United States. Compared to such congestion, nature is supposed to be slow and uncrowded. Yet a single square meter of soil in the boondocks—less than a billionth the area of Manhattan—holds a thousand times more animals than all Manhattan holds humans. Earthworms, beetles, mites, ants, nematodes, springtails, and protozoa bump cell walls and brush antennae as they cram the intricate grids of dark dirt streets. Unlike our human cities which end at rivers or peter into suburbs, this great clay underground metropolis spreads vastly across every continent of earth, diminished only by deserts and ice caps. There is nothing rural about nature.