News & Politics

Do You Have Bicoastal Disorder?

New York or California? While previous generations had to choose one or the other, bicoastal commuters have now become a fixture of the high-tech industry. Splitting their time and loyalty between the Big Apple and the Bay Area, many have developed "bicoastal disorder," a condition one sufferer humorously described as "a chronic longing for something unique that is 2,500 miles away."
When I lived in Northern California for six years, I was never happy unless I had a plane ticket back to New York. Now that I've moved back home to Manhattan, the opposite is true. As a chronic bicoastalite, each coast has always proved the perfect antidote to the other. In conversations comparing the cultures of each coast, it's always becomes a geographical cat fight that no one ever wins because both sides always end up with an advantage. New York is less comfortable, but its intellectual tradition is deeper and its pizza crust is thinner. Northern California is more flexible and innovative, but its pizza crust is doughy and dense. Whether discussing social milieus or business styles, the conversation continues in an endless loop.Now with E-mail, the web and social and inter-office mailings lists, bicoastalites have more immediate links to each culture. For me and many others in the Net industry, technology creates an information age mental condition that prevents you from ever really having to commit to one place. Todd Lappin, a writer for Wired magazine, likes to call the condition "Bicoastal Disorder." "The mental condition only sets in after one has lived on each coast long enough to appreciate and internalize their respective virtues, and it's most noticeable symptom is the chronic longing for something unique that is 2,500 miles away," he recently wrote in an E-mail.For example, six years of West coast snow boarding has made me turn up my nose to the piddly slush covered hills of the East. I'll sheepishly admit that there are mornings when my longing for Sierra sun and powder is so strong that I'll check the snow conditions on the Lake Tahoe Weather Cam on the Web before I've really registered the condition of the sky over the Hudson River just outside my window. I know a New Yorker in San Francisco who after her morning coffee ritualistically logs on to The New York Post online in order to get that gritty in-your-face tabloid fix that only a New York paper can offer.We are not alone. A few years ago, Nina Katchadourian, a Brooklyn based artist, who grew up in Palo Alto, created a clever solution to her chronic bicoastal disorder. With a glue stick and an exacto knife, Katchadourian took a standard Triple A map of the United States, cut out the entire center of the country, and meticulously reconnected each highway so that the East and West coasts merged into a new drum stick shaped continent. In Katchadourian's cartographic fantasy, you could literally drive over the George Washington Bridge and arrive in California in approximately four hours."I was nostalgic for the West coast so I decided to rearrange the communication system to have it serve my needs," she says. Or to put it in the dizzying techobabble of a tech industry press release: Katchadourian's map provided a total coast to coast merger solution for bicoastal navigation. "It's the exacto knife program," she jokes. Her connected roads stand as a low-tech metaphor for the increasing high-tech connections that the web and E-mail provides for virtual relations between friends and businesses that on the one hand makes Bicoastal Disorder more manageable, and other the hand much more severe. While she now owns a brownstone in Brooklyn, she says still can't totally commit to either coast. "New York drives me crazy unless I know that I'm going to visit California at some point in the future."Last year, No End, the San Francisco-based mailing list for the Web community began a satellite list for New York transplants and bicoastal commuters. Steven Warren, a programmer and the list's New York host, recently moved home to New York after living in San Francisco for ten years. He says that the constant electronic connection to San Francisco makes it much easier to go back and forth. "I can pick up freelance work or make plans to stay with old friends so I can easily support my West coast habit."Other bicoastalites take it even further. Sitting in a San Francisco apartment, Steve Silberman, a senior correspondent for Wired News, who is from New York and based in San Francisco, says that four years ago it was clear to him that the leading edge of Internet culture was in the West, and therefore he was happy to be living in San Francisco. "But as the American Internet becomes more about media and professional writing and less about technology and social experiment, its center of intellectual gravity is tumbling towards New York City," he says. So for him, it is becoming increasingly difficult to decide between either place. "The thing that has made it possible to live in both places is to live in a third place all the time; online," he says. "My home town isn't New York, or San Francisco. It's The Well. That's where most of my friends, neighbors and colleagues are; the people involved in the ongoing narrative of my life."While technology offers an electronic lithium for Bicoastal Disorder by bringing the coasts closer together, it also makes bicoastal culture clashes more immediate and pronounced. While Tom Keinan, the twenty-eight year old Director of Business Development for Organic Online worked in New York, he found that he would have to change the tone of his emails when he was writing to the San Francisco co-workers. When he transferred to the San Francisco office, the first few weeks were pretty rocky. "At first, my New York hard-edged, blunt, and demanding manner sent teammates crying to the bathroom because I hurt their feelings," he says. "I had to soften my approach to adapt to the different expectations of what is acceptable behavior in San Francisco."Robert Hoffer, CEO of Query Labs, an online directory service that has offices in Silicon Valley and New Jersey, says that he flies to Silicon Valley at least once a week. "The plane is like the bus," he says. "You're constantly having to switch between a more casual and a more hard-nosed manner of business." As the East coast becomes increasingly dependant on the technical innovation of Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley becomes increasingly dependent on Wall Street financiers, advertisers, and big media conglomerates, maybe having a little of each culture in your head and being able to surf between styles is actually good for business. Maybe Bicoastal Disorder is healthy."I can't wait until they invent the Star Trek matter transporter," says Wired's Silberman. "so I can have smoked sturgeon at Balducci's in the morning and then beam back to San Francisco for a quiet dinner without the sound of horns blaring in my ear." Until that day, maybe the best antidote to Bicoastal Disorder is the wisdom that spread around the Internet under the false identity of a Kurt Vonnegut commencement speech. "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you too hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you too soft." In between, stay in the right direction and envision new maps.

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