I grew up in New York State, although not New York City or Long Island. This is important to note, because like many of the people I grew up with, I am engaged in a great debate about boundaries. New York, like many states, has an area called “Upstate”, but even the people who live there cannot all agree on where that area starts. We all concede that Long Island and “the city” are not Upstate. Many city people think that Upstate is simply everywhere north of the city. Some even count it by subway stops.
Many of the people in Dutchess County, where I’m from, know that we’re not from Upstate either. I grew up in Wappingers Falls, one town south of the much-mocked Poughkeepsie. I grew up with New York City media, and although suburban, the culture of the area is not like the rural farming areas to the north of the county. The Metro North commuter railroad has a terminal in Poughkeepsie that takes you straight into Grand Central Station. Some New York City agencies, such as the Office for the Aging, agree—they extend the boundary up to Poughkeepsie. Some extend it even further north. There is no official consensus. This doesn’t really matter, but on the other hand it really does.
It matters because it’s an identity thing. People who are securely Upstate identify with their region, and people from the city are city people. The rest of us have an idea of who we are based partly on this nebulous geographical concept. In some ways this is absurd. On the other hand geography and culture do shape a person—I know I am a different person as a New Yorker than I would have been growing up as a Minnesotan. I’ve lived in both places—the distinctions are there. I also know that I am a distinctly different person because I have never identified with the label “Upstate”. I know who I am.
I’ve thought a lot about this over the years, and though I still have a definite opinion—New Yorkers are very prone to definite opinions—I’ve also realized that in some ways it doesn’t matter. Words are just labels. This is important to know. People go around labeling people all the time, and we also label ourselves. There are some labels that are true to my identity—like writer, lesbian, and vegetarian—and many that aren’t. People who don’t understand me tend to assault me with inaccurate modifiers and faulty nouns. Sometimes I even do it myself, calling myself clumsy, or lazy, or other words that are untrue. When I am secure in my identity, the inept syllables fall into a pile at my feet, where they are easy to kick to the side. It’s so much easier.
Your assignment, should you choose to accept it:
240. What labels do you identify with? Are there inaccurate modifiers and faulty nouns that others use to describe you? Do you describe yourself with falsehoods? Let them fall to your feet, and kick them aside.
Does your state have different areas—like Upstate New York, Outstate Minnesota, or Greater Washington? Which one describes you? If you’re really interested in the debate about Upstate New York, check out this cool Wikipedia article: