How to Be a Real New Englander? Complain.

I don’t like skiing, local sports teams, duck boots, or plaid. But I do love to gripe. Maybe that’s enough to call myself a Yankee?

The author’s take on the viral Drake meme. / Illustration by Mark Matcho

I was born in Boston and grew up just outside of it. Save for four years in Wisconsin—loved it; wicked cold—I’ve been here all my life. It never felt like a conscious decision to stay, but it’s like when I don’t shave for five days: I’m not intending to grow a beard, but the result is the same.

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With a wife and two kids, it’s a safe bet that I’m not relocating, and I can say without reservation that Massachusetts is home…I guess. I mean, I gotta live somewhere. I suppose. It’s just that I’ve never felt particularly, well, New England-y.

I’m 56 years old, so naturally, I’ll start by blaming my parents, who gave me bupkis for local roots. My mom is from Jackson, Mississippi. (You can hear it. I don’t.) My dad was from New Haven, Connecticut, a state that’s about as New England as red clam chowder and whose sole purpose is to serve as a cut-through to New York. You stop for two and only two reasons: to see Bruce Springsteen in Hartford, always a great show, and because you can’t get out of visiting family. The upside is that you can always make it a day trip.

All of this set me up to be a perpetual outsider from birth, and I haven’t done anything to help my cause. I’ve never rooted for Boston sports teams and never will. My dad loved Hank Greenberg, so he adopted Detroit, and I hopped on board before I realized that it would make growing up so much harder.

I also don’t ski. I don’t snowshoe. I don’t camp. I don’t own anything named Brady. I’ve never chopped down a tree or built a stone wall. I don’t like plaid. I hate duck boots. I don’t like molasses cookies, because they look like chocolate and then provide the greatest eating letdown of all time.

I don’t love the ocean, even though I decided to live 45 seconds from it. I don’t mind walking on the beach, but I don’t want to lie on it with my shirt off, and I don’t want to swim in the water. Oh, and I’m not looking to get a boat, which probably should have prohibited me from living in Marblehead, if only because I’ve got nothing to add to most conversations around town, which involve either getting a launch, going down to Rhode Island to look at a potential new cruiser, or spraying and buffing cleats. (Those metal things you wrap boat lines around. Had to look it up.) I should probably just break down and buy a hull for my front yard in order to fit in. Or at least a brass scallop-shell door knocker, another thing I don’t have and don’t particularly like.

I realize that all of this makes me sound crabby and hard to approach, so maybe there is some New England in me after all.

But there’s gotta be more. Oh, right. I love ice cream and lobster and am aces at pushing out the tail meat in one solid piece. Sorry, I mean I was. I went vegan a decade ago, and, well, there goes the eating fun. I still like syrup. I believe that candlepin bowling is the only bowling that matters. And for the past two years, I’ve gone to an orchard with my family and come home with sacks of apples that will never become pies.

Swish. That’s it. There’s nothing more New England than walking through a field on a sweaty Sunday in September.


Forcing your kids to do it when all they want is to get cider doughnuts and go home.


Going back to the car with more weight than you started with.


Denting up your haul as soon as you back out of the free-for-all parking lot.

[Trumpets.] I’m one of you.

But not really. One farm visit per year is like saying you know Maine after spending a weekend in Ogunquit. If I were facing the New England Authenticity Council—which doesn’t exist, but, wow, it should—they’d laugh at me. More precisely, they’d look at me and say, “Ah, good one,” with no expression on their leathery faces.

I don’t ski. I don’t camp. I don’t own anything named Brady. I don’t like plaid. I hate duck boots. I don’t like molasses cookies, because they look like chocolate and then provide the greatest eating letdown of all time. But I know there’s a New Englander in me.

Now I’m back to feeling out of place, and I wonder if I’m the problem. Have I just been too stubborn, and am I destined to be rudderless, lost on the ocean in a boat I will never own?

No, I refuse to give up on my home. I know there’s a New Englander in me. I just need to figure out what defines us as a people. And to know that, I need to figure out what actually defines us as New Englanders. While it seems as though everybody loves the Cape or has worked for Fidelity, they don’t. So that’s not it.

Still, there’s something to the idea that a place comes with certain traits. It’s a way for people to identify with others, be part of a group, and survive the wilderness. For us in Massachusetts, it might have started with, “Hey, we’re all rebelling against the British and eating corn. Let’s create a town, call it Dover just to piss them off, churn some butter, then quilt.”

It might be lazy to reduce any place down to a few lines, but it’s necessary. We’re not as united a country as our name implies. Every state has to put out a simple message so people know what to expect, a.k.a. not bitch when they visit.

California? Get ready for sitting in your car and earthquakes. Nebraska? The vegan special today is a porterhouse. Arizona? You better like heat and scorpions.

Here? We could say it’s being hard-working, never fashionable, and questioning everything and everybody, the last part a holdover from the Puritan days, as Robert Allison, professor of history at Suffolk University, told me. But he also notes that attitudes shift. Anyone more than 30 years old has a built-in skepticism and belief that the worst will happen, usually in a Game 7.

If you were born after 1995, however, you’re more likely to get home delivery of a newspaper than have that dark-cloud attitude. Your life has been all about buying championship hats, mostly from the Patriots and Red Sox, a prospect to which a teenager in 1986 would have said, “No effing way.”

Other New England traits haven’t changed much through the generations. However sunny we are, we always carry around a perpetual chip on our shoulder, which comes from never being mentioned on Best Big Cities lists, mostly because we’re not a big city. Indianapolis and El Paso have more people. And yet we remain convinced that we’re bigger than we are, just like the Boston terrier we created in the 1870s and made Massachusetts’ official dog—a dog that never, ever makes any Best Breeds to Own lists.

This all feeds into our yin-yang of believing that we’re awesome but not wanting to brag about it, but then getting mad when people don’t recognize us for being quietly awesome. We act as though it doesn’t matter, but it does, and that just gets the New Englander in us simmering and stewing until the frustration spews out, mostly on the Tobin at someone who doesn’t understand the simple concept of “Just go.”

Maybe that’s our thing: beefs. We love having them. Lovvvvvve having them. If there’s none to be had, we’ll create one.

Wait. Maybe that’s our thing: beefs. We love having them. Lovvvvvve having them. If there’s none to be had, we’ll create one. Why else do we spell things one way and pronounce them another? “So we know who’s not from here,” says Allison, who acknowledges that he’s originally from New Jersey. It’s route like the tree, not a beatdown, Mr. Ohio. Worcester is two syllables and does not rhyme with poor ancestor, you annoyingly friendly Nashville transplant. It might seem nitpicky, but pointing out other people’s mistakes is one of the few things that gives us joy.

People Not from Here, know this as well: We’ll find a way to let people who are from here know that they can’t be from here. South Boston has its own anthem. Nahant, the smallest town by area, which doesn’t have a high school, is divided into Big and Little sections that look askance at each other. If someone moved into Charlestown on the second day of their life, never, ever left, and ran a free health clinic there the entire time, they’d always be a Toonie, never a Townie.

Yet when we want to, New Englanders can band together. It’s like a family: We can attack ourselves, but if Philadelphia tried to tell us that Fenway and cranberries blow—which they do, and which every rational person knows—Philadelphia is gonna feel the wrath of six states. Yes, Connecticut, you can tag along, too.

Other states have tried to band together like us, and they have failed. The Mid-Atlantic States? Clumsy. Plus, no one out-side of Maryland knows exactly which ones are included.

The Tri-State area? Like three makes a region. And one of them is Connecticut, and even though it’s the least regarded, it’s already part of a region. Stop being so sad and desperate, New York.

Is this important? Yes, but no. Do we mean to be so salty? Kind of. Do we love it? Oh yeah. It’s our sport. It lets us argue and be distrustful of people who haven’t lived here for eight generations. We require regular, low-grade discomfort for survival. San Diego, with your perfect weather and all-year-round tennis leagues, you wouldn’t last four early-October days here. You think a problem couldn’t be found on a cloudless 74-degree day? Watch us complain about glare and the lack of resale value for a convertible.

More than anything, what makes a New Englander is the ability to get indignant in fewer than two seconds and to do it anywhere—like at the gym, in the school pickup line, during a eulogy. This is one of my top résumé skills; I don’t want to brag, but I have a running commentary in my head of perceived slights. “Don’t tell me to get a boat. I’ll get one when I want to, or I won’t. It’s not a requirement to live here. And chocolate chips are bad? Seriously. Like when? Like, name one time they’ve made anything worse. You can’t. You…just…can’t,” I say in response to arguments that are not being made.

They probably won’t be, like, ever. But I’m still worked up. I hope somebody challenges me. Please, someone. Do it. I’m so ready to go.

I guess I am a New Englander, after all.

First published in the print edition of the February 2024 issue with the headline, “A New England State of Mind.”

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