NEW YORK OBSERVED; Going Home Again, in a Worried Mind's Eye
By MARK ALLEN (NYT) 1289  words
Published: January 11, 2004

Photos: SIMS NOSTALGIA -- The author inside his bedroom in Plano, left, and, below, the serene front yard of his boyhood home.; BACK TO THE FUTURE -- Wandering into the backyard at night, above, and using a week's allowance to pay the pizza delivery man. (Photos by Electronic Arts) (click for larger view)

 EVERY New Yorker needs a break from the city. Some escape to Central Park, some drive to the country on weekends, some summer in the Hamptons. Here's what I do. I take a trip to an electronic simulation of my childhood home, with robotic versions of my high school friends, all controlled and viewed while I sit in front of my computer at my apartment on the Lower East Side.

 In case you don't know about the Sims, it's an interactive home game that allows you to create three-dimensional living spaces that look and function exactly as you wish. And within those you can produce human characters, each with a distinct look and persona, that interact with one another in real time. You're at the control of their wills and environments, but only somewhat, and therein lies the game's allure, which exists somewhere between that of a dollhouse and God, or maybe Dr. Frankenstein.

 Many people use the Sims to create dream houses or play out fantasy lifestyles or relationships, as I did in the beginning. One day, however, while playing the game to relax at the end of typically stressful New York week, I had a sentimental compulsion. It dawned on me that I could use the parameters of the game to recreate a chunk of Plano, Tex., the bucolic suburb where I grew up. I could even recreate the home I lived in, and perhaps even myself.

 After using the game to construct my old house, I was amazed at how familiar it looked on the screen. I felt as if I were actually taking a stroll through the old front yard as I used the mouse to move my perspective 360 degrees around. I then decided to create four characters that represented me and my family from that time, and I herded them all into their rooms. I even dotted the street with friends and neighbors' homes, with them inside.

 Now I can't stop. The other night, I turned down an invitation to a fantastic opening at the Metropolitan Opera, just so I could sit here and try to align the pixels to simulate the dimensions of the window next to my teenage bed just right, the one I used to sneak out of on school nights after my parents had gone to sleep.

 But I can't get the grass in the front yard green enough. I remember it being a brighter shade, but I can't find the right color from my choice of swatches. I'm lost in a fake creation I'm remembering electronically, trying to figure out why I'm there, and wondering what it could be saying about my real life here in the city.

 I moved from Plano to New York in the early 1990's with the usual head full of dreams. It took 10 years before the dream began to reverse itself, causing me to finally grow up enough to have to look backward. I moved to a New York whose outer surface turned out to be a reflection of what I had dreamed existed beneath. Behind that mirror, the city I had gazed at from afar was systematically canceled out, year by year, life lesson by life lesson, by a more complicated beast than I had initially conceived of, or was even aware was possible. Not that my fantasies hadn't been realized, for the most part. But 10 years later the reality has become unmanageable.

 Some say that everyday life in New York is just too complicated for the average person.

 After a decade spent jostled inside Manhattan's erratic embrace, every surface here is stained with a memory for me. I can't look anywhere in New York without a poignant recollection. My thoughts surrounding every surface have blocked my view of the surfaces themselves. The physical and imagined intersections of New York now have become a perpetual rerun to me. So I've been cornered by my own New York experiences; my Ten Years in New York has systematically painted me into a panic room.

 I'm now sitting in that safe space, biding my time with a controllable diorama of a time when memories were much simpler, letting the backed-up residue of my overcrowded city life catch up to a comfortable enough distance for me.

 New York City is godlike in that to inhabit it is to accept its omnipresence in everything around you. In his classic study ''The Poetics of Space,'' the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard asserts that ''the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace.'' True home living for New Yorkers is a luxury afforded only in the loftiest penthouse or the most generous brownstone, and is a lifestyle alien to me.

 My teenage home in Texas? Huge, sprawling, filled with multilayers of privacy and surrounded by a provincial city that, even in its most hurried moments, could not escape its impenetrable, reflective tranquility. At least that's how I remember it. My sitting here in front of a screen that allows me access to a dreamy electronic world seems to be a kind of inverted agoraphobia that mirrors the restlessness of the very metropolis rapping loudly at my apartment window.

 So I guess I'll stick around the city, as long as I can turn to my Sims game. After all, if I were to finally make that Big Decision to leave the city and move to a house in the country, who's to say the whole process wouldn't just repeat itself? Will I find myself retreating to my computer, creating the fake electronic simulation of an environment I used to live in all over again? Will I distract myself from the country with the fact that I can't get the sidewalk in front of the Sims re-creation of my old New York apartment gray enough?

 Right now I'm becoming impatient with the food delivery guy at my real New York door. I need to hurry back to my computer to make sure the Sims me pays the pizza man at the door of my Sims house (with the allowance money my Sims parents gave me) in time.

 I keep clicking on my teenage Sims self, trying to command him to walk out the front door, stroll down the breezy avenue and go lie in the grass in the park across the street from our old house so he can hear the soothing sounds of the electronically sampled crickets.

 I keep having the urge to reach down inside the computer screen and tap his shoulder. I want to travel back in time and tell myself all the things that I will be doing once I move to New York. I'm sure the Sims me would be thrilled at all the things I could tell him, as he sat there in his room, vividly imagining himself living in Manhattan one day, walking down its streets, living in its apartments, experiencing its everyday adventures.