Big Decisions, Greener Grass, & Living Like It's 1983
Sometimes it's not a better place to live that we find ourselves looking for, but a better time.
Some weeks, the essays write themselves; other weeks, they have to be chased out of the dark corners with a broom handle. This is a broom handle week, so I hope you’ll forgive some stream of consciousness today.
I’d love to blame my writer’s block on the fact that I have a new baby in the house, but the truth is, he’s an angel. Granted, he’s only two weeks old, but so far he’s the best newborn we’ve ever had. He’s never fussy unless he’s hungry or needs a diaper change. He mostly sleeps through the night, but is OK with just hanging out and looking around, too. He does the same thing, sometimes, when I hold him. Like this:
He’s been a balm, that’s for sure. A few minutes of holding him and I feel…I hate to sound new-agey, but there’s a kind of pure, cleansing energy in a newborn baby. They have a power that enables them to chase all the shadows away, for just a few minutes, and to just make you feel alive.
But alas, going through life just holding a sweet baby doesn’t pay the bills, or deal with the life decisions in front of us, or help solve a dozen other things weighing on our minds and hearts. It’s a lovely distraction, but the need for adulting continues.
Here in my house, we’re at a crossroads. The existential crisis I’ve been describing in these pages hangs over us every day — the re-evaluation of everything that comes at mid-life, the battle to separate the truth from crippled religion, the search for meaning, purpose, and fulfilment, and so on. I miss the simplicity of my youth more and more all the time.
I wonder how many others are finding themselves in the same kind of place. Trying to get your bearings in a world that no longer makes sense, trying to re-invent your interpretive framework on the fly…it’s a big challenge.
And then there are the practical questions. Our home, like many others in a suddenly booming market, has increased in value more significantly than we expected. It’s an opportunity to walk away with our debts paid off and money down on the next place. We’re eager to downsize our expenses and simplify our lives. When we bought this house just a couple years ago, everything was different. We had very few options to choose from. I work from home, and my wife manages the back end of several businesses and is the COO of a large family. We both needed dedicated home office space. We also needed an in-law suite for her dad, who will be 89 next month, so we could take him in. But that meant finding a 6-bedroom house that was reasonable driving distance from our children's school, with some other critical considerations thrown in. At the time we bought it, it was one of only 5 available on the market that met our criteria. And though there’s much about it that’s objectively nice, it has become clear to us that it’s not at all the kind of home meant for a family like ours. It’s large enough, but also impractical: poorly laid-out spaces taking up too much of the floor plan and virtually no storage whatsoever, not even a broom closet. It has a very small yard, and though the view of the natural desert behind our back fence is beautiful, it’s not a great place for our little ones to go outside and play. We thought they’d be in school most of the year, getting their energy out at recess, but COVID put an end to that, and we wound up homeschooling again. We have a pool, which is nice for the Arizona summer — it’ll be over 115 degrees every day this week — but even that gets old after a while. They need trees to climb, places to ride bikes and build forts, and we have none of that here. So they sit in front of screens far too often, for far too long, as their parents sit around trying to figure out what we need to do about all of it.
There’s a change feeling in the air, but no clear sense of direction. We know it’s time to start a new chapter — I strongly suspect a lot of you are feeling this, too. The things we thought worked for us have changed. We’ve learned hard lessons and have to adapt accordingly for the umpteenth time. But how?
In the past, when we moved, we’d do it for work, or because a family member needed help, or because we wanted to be closer to a school, or needed more space. But now, with everything we do happening from home with no tie to a physical locality, and our still-growing family needing a different kind of space to stretch their legs and spend more of their time in healthy pursuits, the requirements are not nearly as clear.
I’m an East Coast boy. Born in upstate New York, my dad worked in retail management and was transferred a lot. So I grew up in various locations across New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. When I got old enough to leave home, I wound up living in a bunch of places around the country besides — Ohio, Atlanta, Dallas, Idaho, and now Phoenix. I’ve come to understand that while I enjoy the East Coast energy, I love the American West, and the more laid-back West Coast vibe. Everything out here is bigger. Nature dwarfs you, and puts you in your place. I live for the coast, the mountains, the ponderosa pines. I’m a big guy with a big personality who loves to be made to feel small. It triggers my sense of awe and wonder, and that’s always a good place to be. And though Arizona certainly has that majesty, it’s also burdened with the never-changing and stark landscape of the desert. The heat is at times relentless. The almost complete lack of rain some years drives me almost batty — I think there’s little in this world more soothing than a good rainy day. Arizona’s unchangeability makes it the kind of place where you can easily lose your sense of the passage of time, especially during a pandemic. Every day looks exactly the same. It’s difficult to pin down memories in chronological order, because there are no visual cues to differentiate them. “Remember last fall when we went for that drive?” becomes “Remember when we went for that drive? What year was that? Do you remember what month it was?”
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When I look outward, away from where I live now, I see that the West is also brimming with other challenges. California is, hands down, the most beautiful place I’ve ever been, and I’d love to live there for that reason. We took a family road trip to the Redwood National Forest and then back down the coastal highway in 2017, and I can say without question it’s the best thing we ever did together. Beautiful, refreshing, and awe-inspiring.
But California is a failed state. And it seems to be getting worse all the time. Self-destructive governance, lawlessness, a homeless crisis, sky-high prices for both commodities and real estate, and crumbling infrastructure. One of the best places in the world, and people had to go and ruin it.
As the past year has aptly shown, many of the same things are true of Oregon and Washington, which, if we’re just evaluating places on their natural beauty, would follow closely behind California. I’m also a big fan of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, but my wife and I both find the ocean deeply therapeutic, so our inclination is to stay within driving distance of the coast — San Diego is only a 5 hour drive from where we live right now, and we try to take advantage of that when we can — but is there a place where can we have both?
So it seems that every day we talk about not letting this housing market pass us by, but fail to execute. We find ourselves looking at houses just about everywhere, but we never quite make a decision about what to do. We want things that are hard to find — the benefits of country living, for example, but with reasonable access to the amenities a city has to offer. We want seasons, but not the interminable winters of my youth, nor the excruciating summers of our present home. We’d love to have friends, like we do here, but sometimes that feels like a luxury we’ll have to forego if we want anything else we’re looking for. Maybe we want too much.
We talk about Texas, sometimes, but while I appreciate the culture and the people in that noble state, I dread spending my days staring out at the flat, empty expanses of that landscape. I not only lived there for a year, but I’ve driven across Texas more times than I can count, both the northern and southern routes. Truth be told, it’s the sort of place I’m always in a hurry to get to the other side of. Maybe I’m missing something. I probably am.
And to be honest, I’m feeling my age. We’ve moved so many times in our nearly 18 years of marriage that just the idea of making it happen again is exhausting. I just want to find a place that feels like home, make one last move, and plant roots as deep as they will go. I want it for our kids as much as for us. I want them to be able to come home for visits, even long after they’re grown, and to be able to re-connect with their childhood memories, and maybe even share them with their kids. I want to sit with my grown children, sipping whiskey around a bonfire under the stars, talking about the things that matter most, and laughing at the the things that don’t.
But how do you find home when you’ve never really had one?
How do you find a place where the people aren’t overtly crazy and you can feel like you belong?
Do places like this even exist anymore, or am I nostalgic for something that’s gone extinct?
I wonder, sometimes, if other people make things this complicated, or if it’s just us. Maybe we’re overthinking it. Maybe we want things nobody this side of heaven gets to have. Nevertheless, there it is. The incessant, undeniable desire to find a port in the storm.
The sheer aimless urgency of it is maddening.
Sometimes, I’ve found, the grass actually is greener somewhere else, but the rain that waters it means you have to deal with the humidity and the bugs. You’re almost always going to trade at least one good thing for another. Sometimes, I wonder if I’m looking for an external place that doesn’t exist in the hopes it’ll fix something that’s actually broken on the inside. Of me. Of my wife. Of my kids. Of us as a family.
When I was a kid, we had a couple of islands of stability in our years of frequent moving. We grew up playing around town without cell phones, riding our bikes everywhere and playing in our forts until dark. Binge-watching shows wasn’t a thing we could have conceived of; unless we felt like programming our overly-complex VCR and hoping for the best, we watched our favorite TV programs when they were on, once a week, then moved on with our lives. We ate dinners together as a family, every night. Nobody had to fight an addiction to screens, least of all parents, especially at the table at meal time. Porn was something you might have heard about from some of the other boys at school, who knew where their dad’s stash was. Occasionally they’d bring in a dirty magazine as a bunch of their teenage peers huddled around to see what all the fuss was about, but it was rare. We didn’t have to worry about the effects of mind-altering smut threatening us in our formative years, making its way into our lives through every nook and cranny. There were no drag queen story hours. No debauched and overtly sexualized pride marches. Our parents had no mandatory woke sensitivity trainings at work. Nobody had to worry about keeping up appearances on social media, or facing cancel culture mobs for something they said once a long time ago as a joke, or something they said yesterday that they not only meant, but have every right to believe.
There’s a lot to enjoy about life in the 21st century; I’m a nerd, and I’m fascinated by a lot of the technological development we see around us every day. But life was simpler not so long ago, and I don’t think we’ve figured out how to adapt. I don’t have the first clue how to teach my kids to not just survive, but thrive, in the world we’ve brought them into. So I wing it, and hope for the best.
Maybe I’m not trying to find the right place for my family, but the right time. Maybe I have to face the fact that it’s one that no longer exists. As far as I know, there’s no place left to give a child an upbringing reminiscent of the 80s, where all of my best childhood memories lie. They were far from perfect, but maybe they really were the last of the “good ol’ days,” at least until the epochal change we’re going through really takes root. These days we know too much, are connected too much, and have too few excuses for not being “on” 24/7. And the truth is, if we want our kids to succeed, they have to know how to navigate the digital tsunami. It’s where many of the best jobs are, and they’re likely going to need technical fluency to be competitive.
But I sure would like them to have more of what I did. I’d watch from the kitchen window as they spent the first month of their summer vacation hand-cutting a tunnel through the forsythia bushes near the back fence just so they could spy on the neighbors. I’d scold them while harboring secret pride over their construction of ludicrous rope traps for their imagined enemies, camouflaging pressure-sensitive nooses fashioned from spare clothesline attached to heavy stones hung over the gnarled branches of the big lilacs on the south side of the yard. I’d offer them tips as they recorded their own radio shows on cassette, using the old, beat-up boombox the neighbor gave them. I’d give them my blessing to walk the three blocks to the local library so they could get lost in the stacks of books when it was too hot to play. I’d sneak a peak as they invented wrestling personas and took turns battling it out on the old mattress in the attic of the barn like Wrestlemania had come to town. I’d watch them zoom around the sidewalk that encircled the house on their bikes and big wheels, shooting imaginary laser guns at each other while playing cards clothespinned to the spokes of their wheels made the sound of makeshift motorcycles. I’d smile at their purple and blue tongues as they squeezed out icy cold Otter Pops on the front stoop under the maple tree they climbed every morning when the dew still covered the grass as the sun lazily made its way into the sky. They’d swing on the playground swings, white-knuckling the chains as they pumped their legs to go higher, until the world looked as though it were in free-fall and their hands ached. We’d sit together at night and watch The Last Starfighter and Return of the Jedi and The Neverending Story as we ate popcorn and Twizzlers.
It doesn’t sound like too much to ask when I say it out loud. It just sounds like normal life to me.
And maybe that, most of all, is what I’m wishing for. Something like normalcy. Maybe I’m just an idealist. Hell, maybe it’s all possible and the only reason they haven’t lived this way is because I haven’t taught them to. But I think it’s more than that. I think we’re living in an age that has completely lost its innocence.
Still, a guy can dream. How about you? What do you want for you and yours?
I sympathize with this. The older I get, the more I am thankful for the situation I grew up in. Perhaps one of the things I will always be grateful for is being able to remember the world without the internet. We didn’t even have a computer in my house until I was almost in high school and I never had access to anything but a dialup modem until I went to college. We did have technology education even as early as elementary school. Oh, how I hated it! I would never have then imagined that I would, as an adult, spend a good amount of time writing computer code for statistical analyses.
I have come to the conclusion that the world prior to the internet was by no means perfect, but it was better than what we have now. I was telling my mom just a few weeks ago that it seems to me that the overall impact of the internet on human society had been a negative one. There are for sure positive uses for the internet. The ability for hospitals to share information and help heal people, or the ability to more efficiently track and distribute goods. But so much of the internet seems to be a waste, or worse. Most social media seems to be just a globalized version of the smoke-filled-room experiment.
It’s hard to tell how much of this is nostalgia. When I talk to my grandfather, he has told me that the worst thing that ever happened to Vermont was the building of the interstate in the 1960s. Before that, it was very difficult to come to Vermont, and so very few people came, and it was better that way. He is probably right. It reminds me of Civilization and Its Discontents. Freud talks about how we so often marvel at technology being able to solve our problems. But, in fact, many if not most of the problems solved by technology are problems that technology itself created. Yes, the train gets me to the city faster, but I wouldn’t need to go to the city at all if the factory were never built. Or, more current, the scheduling app on my phone helps me manage my time, but I wouldn’t be so busy had I never gotten the phone. Freud isn’t completely right here, of course. The factory isn’t just some frivolous institution. The factory makes decent quality clothing available to almost everybody, or charcoal to easily heat my house, or canned food to more easily feed my children, or penicillin to easily cure infections. All things that humans in most of history would have fought wars for. The question is, how can we take the objective goods of technological advancement, without also accepting its pitfalls. And often, it seems like we only recognize the pit once we are already in it.
As for the living situation, you want the comforts of the Shire but the majesty of Gondor. In this life, I don’t think you can have both. My opinion. But, if you are looking for small towns with climbing trees and oceans, you are looking for New England. New Hampshire and Maine are both very nice places to live. So is Vermont, I might add, but we have no oceans.
This is beautiful. I just love your heart.