Where to go next?

As my family and I have made our way eastward across the United States, curiously along Interstate 80 from San Francisco to Oakland to Des Moines, IA, to the Toledo, OH, area, we often joke that we’ll continue our eastbound route and end up in Pennsylvania or New York next.

But, neither my husband nor I want to settle farther east. We want to return to the West, possibly to California where we have spent most of our lives and where our families live, or possibly to a new state, like Idaho or Colorado. The problem is that now that we’ve left California and seen it from the outside—the high cost of living the damage a ruinous legislature and ineffective governor has had on state services like public education—it’s harder to return than anticipated.

We live now in a quiet suburban town outside of Toledo, which is a former industrial city famous for supporting Detroit’s nearby auto industry. But much of the manufacturing has left the area, as it has in so many cities across the country, and there are elements of despair and abandonment that hover over this place.

In our little neighborhood, people seem content and settled in their lives. They mow their lawns, wash their cars and walk their dogs with regular routine. They drive shiny cars and take their kids to baseball games. The schools are good, and one of the high school’s hockey team just won the state title. But this neighborhood is in a bubble. Life here is easy.

It’s nice not to have to listen to screaming firetruck sirens racing down your street at 2 a.m., and not to walk out the front door and find a homeless man has defecated on your front stoop. It’s nice to not battle flocks of dirty pigeons nesting on the porch or to weave between globs of phglem-tinged loogies and equally disgusting pigeon poop on the sidewalk. Of course I’m talking about the streets of San Francisco, but I still miss those streets.

So as we look to where we will land next, we have to take into account the benefits and detractors of every possible place. Surely most our decision will depend on where the best job offer comes from, but we do have more of a say in this move than in either of our two prior moves. Taking all this into account, it’s clear we’ve learned a thing or two in our years abroad (in the Midwest).

  • Cost of living is important. We would rather not have to shell out several hundred thousand dollars to buy a house just because it is in a prime location. We want to live comfortably, but not excessively. We don’t want to be in debt.
  • Prime public education. That is almost an oxymoron in itself. But there are places where a solid public school still exists. We live in such a place now, and we are hoping that we can find good schools in a Western state that hasn’t been desecrated by privatization and budget cuts.
  • Work/life balance. There’s nothing that can compare to life as a medical resident. It is a tough road. My husband has been sleep deprived since he started med school in 2006, and we’re very much looking forward to having a balanced life again. Here in the Midwest, people seem to achieve that more than life on the West Coast. People are less busy here. They don’t schedule events months on end. It’s a slower pace, and it seems more sustainable.
  • Proximity to family and friends. Relationships are key. And beyond our own nuclear family, we miss being around our extended family members and old friends. It’s been hard to miss births, deaths, anniversaries, retirements…all the life moments that are huge and small. We’ve been gone for so long. We’ve learned how to live without that support network, but it can get lonely, and I often feel disconnected. Getting back into the fold would be a great additive to our move.
  • Beautiful surroundings. Some argue that the Midwest is beautiful. I agree that there are some parts I consider to be nice. But nothing compares to the jagged cliffs of the Northern California coastline, or the soaring redwood trees. Overlooking the ocean from a cliff in San Diego, watching pelicans glide in the breeze and surfers wait for a set to roll in is truly beautiful. Enjoying the mountains, the rivers, the lakes and everything in between…we miss that.

It’s exciting to think about the next phase of our lives as a family, and where we will end up. But more than anything I am yearning to put down roots, to settle in a spot and stay put. In my twenties, roaming the world and having adventures sounded like the best idea. Now I just want to develop community. I want to get to know my neighbors and feel invested in a place and in people and friendships. I want to plant a garden, knowing I’ll be there the following year to tend to it.

Life can be fleeting, and while I struggle to stay in the moment and be grateful for what life presents me each day, I still can’t wait to move on to the next chapter. We’ve got a year and a half to figure out where that will be, and until then, I’ll be trying to figure out what makes the most sense for a long-term commitment to home.

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An education in firearms

I heard the news of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., while sitting in a plastic child-sized chair outside my sons’ second-grade classroom. I was waiting for a student to come out and read a poem to me, as I do every Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. The alert came over my phone from the New York Times, and my heart sunk.

When I finished going through the roll of students, I packed up my things and walked down the hall where I ran into a teacher whom I know. We talked for a moment about the tragedy unfolding. All I could think was, what if this were the school? What if someone had come in to my children’s school and opened fire? It was entirely plausible—all too plausible.

I climbed in my car and turned on the radio. A reporter started sharing details of the scene in Newtown. The town sounded similar to the town where we live: suburban, upper income, safe. Even here, in what I’ve come to call Pleasantville, we are not safe from this kind of horror. This kind of terror.

And why?

Guns.

When we moved to Iowa from California, I knew no one who hunted or boasted about guns. My stepfather had a gun for a while that he hid in a top drawer of his dresser, but he soon got rid of it. Guns were not a part of our culture. They were violent and unnecessary and scary. They hurt people.

During the opening of deer hunting season in Iowa, my small boys and I were at a sporting goods store and there were hoards of people—mostly men and their sons—shopping for guns, ammo, camouflage gear and other hunting necessities. I was shocked, but I realized that this was the culture. When hunting season begins in Iowa, people go shopping, then they hit the open lands and shoot away.

I befriended a co-worker who took week-long hunting trips during deer season and turkey season. He liked to taunt me with photos of his trophy carcasses. I learned what a twelve-point buck was, and what it looked like hanging upside down and then made into a string of jerky.

Sharing his love of hunting with me was not meant to traumatize me but to share his culture with me, to share something that made up a part of who he was as a person, as a man. We’d argue about the virtues and pitfalls of hunting, of having guns, of the death of innocent animal lives and the service hunting provides, as many see it, in controlling a species’ population.

But I was not swayed by his passion. I remained confirmed in my beliefs that hunting is wrong in most cases and that guns are not something to be celebrated or paraded. Iowa introduced me to gun culture.

And then there was the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 that killed 33 people. The public was outraged. Memories of the horrific scene at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., resurfaced. Since that 1999 tragedy that left 12 students and one teacher dead, it would have seemed prudent to analyze the country’s position on gun rights. But then there was a deadly shooting in an Omaha, Neb., mall. The public again was outraged. But nothing changed. The mantra: “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” rang out. The National Rifle Association continued its stranglehold on politicians moral compasses, and life went on.

When President Obama entered office 10 years after Columbine, gun-owners were concerned about their rights. They feared the new “socialist” president would repeal the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to bear arms. I interviewed a gun shop owner in northwest Iowa who shared his concerns with his perceived Obama’s anti-gun sentiments. He said the gun owners he knew were all bracing for the worst and stocking up on ammo and guns while they could.

We moved to Ohio last year, and I had become complacent. When someone talked about going hunting or going to the shooting range, I no longer flinched. I guess I was assimilating.

And then the shooting in Aurora, Colo., happened. Again, public outrage surged. But still no talk of real gun control. We were on the brink of a presidential election. The subject was too charged. Some media outlets called it disrespectful to bring up gun control. Yet, people continued to believe that if Obama was re-elected, he’d repeal the Second Amendment.

And now this. Twenty children, six adults killed in a suburban Connecticut elementary school. The 20-year-old gunman who suffered from mental illness is also dead.

Senseless.

And now we’re talking about gun control. Activists have been calling on Obama to stand up to the gun lobby today. A group held a candlelight vigil outside the White House. The people are ready to talk. But is Washington ready to listen? There is a great difference between repealing the Second Amendment and enacting serious gun control to make it harder for people to obtain weapons and ammunition. This is not about our constitutional rights, it’s about reality and protecting innocent lives. We can try to prevent another massacre. We can try to do what’s right.

The Washington Post writes that the increase in public support for gun control arises after a mass shooting—incidents that happen too often in this country. The United States is an outlier in gun violence among developed countries. And while gun ownership is declining in America, violence is not, and these senseless acts of violence and death come upon us all too often.

This could have been my kids’ school. This could have been my children. This could have happened anywhere. We are not immune to the violence. But we can rise up to stop it.

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A change in the weather

When we lived in San Francisco, we befriended several people from Wisconsin and Minnesota who had moved to the Bay Area. At one point or another, each of these friends would opine about missing the seasons, the snow, the fall, the spring.

Granted, California has seasons—it just depends where you are in the state to experience them. June in San Francisco is like winter in Seattle. October in Fog City is like late summer in the Midwest. And San Diego is just pure bliss, nearly every day of the year. A yearlong season of bliss.

After living in the Midwest for six years, I am beginning to understand why someone who grew up with seasons would miss them. The bursts of color in the fall and spring; the snow and crispness of winter that promises sledding and snowball fights. And then there are the long, hot, humid days of summer that seem unbearable but come mid-winter it’s the only thing I long for. It’s nice to have the change, though each season has become less predictable each year we’ve lived here.

Still, I am a Californian at heart and in my bones. Growing up in San Diego must have programmed my body chemistry to reject temperatures below 68 degrees and above 74 degrees. It’s a small window, and it gives me lots of grief. I am still apt to complain when the mercury rises or falls below my minimal comfort zone.

But I do surprise myself from time to time. It was 50 degrees out today and sunny. I wore only two layers instead of three or four, as I would have a few years ago. I even went sockless while running an errand. I might be getting tougher after all.

Remembering the Caucus

In two days, the Iowa caucuses will convene once more. This time around, voters will come together to stand for their choice in the Republican presidential primary contest and I will remember the thrill of caucusing for my first and only time on a chilly January evening in Des Moines four years ago.

I wrote about it then, in a more personal forum than this blog–an email to friends and family mostly still voting the conventional way of filling in ovals or tapping a touch screen back in California. And, I pulled that old email out to remind myself how exhilarating that process had been for me as I stood with my neighbors in an elementary school gym standing up for my support of Obama. Here it is: democracy in action.

OK, I know you all (ok maybe not all of you, but at least three of you) are chomping at the bit to know all about caucusing in Iowa (Ok maybe not so much chomping as didn’t even think about it), so here’s a little rundown of how it all worked for this first-timer.

First off, I have to say that if you’re gonna be in Iowa, this is hands down the best time to be in Iowa–once every four years during a presidential primary race (or if you just can’t get enough of pork chops on a stick then it’s the Iowa State Fair, also a good reason to be here). The media spectacle in itself is a wonderment.

Since this summer every candidate (some more than others) has made a temporary nest here in central Iowa. Probably every town on the map got at least one visit from a candidate. So that was exciting, mostly that for a change Iowa and Iowans were being paid attention to. I don’t consider myself an Iowan if that’s what you’re thinking, but it was nice to see them getting their shoulders
rubbed by national media and important political people. Anyhoo, the buildup to last night’s caucuses was palpable. I have never physically witnessed so much political activity among normal people. On my street alone, which is a very normal, working class neighborhood, people displayed their political preferences via lawnsigns and bumper stickers for Hillary Clinton, Richardson, Obama and Edwards. And as I drove around town during the last few months I saw every single Dem and GOP candidate
represented on lawns, in windows on bumpers. It was very invigorating for me who enjoys the political process so much to see a community outside the Bay Area come alive with such fervor and diversity of opinion. Not only were people very interested in what was going on, they proudly shared their opinion on candidates with the rest of us. This dialogueing, even if in just the form of a lawn sign, was such a great thing for me to witness here because I’ve been so used to people either not talking about politics
because it’s such a touchy subject or because of a little media theory called the spiral of silence (which I won’t get into, and you can
thank me for that later).

Caucus night capitalized on the people’s ability to share their opinions on candidates in a public forum. At 6 p.m. Kurt and I walked the several blocks to the local elementary school where our precinct was to caucus. After a bit of uncoordinated rigmarole, we were cattle herded with our Democratic precinct mates into this little room where we were supposed to stand with people who are also voting (caucusing) for the same candidate. However, our small room was too small for the 425 Democrats from precinct 46 who showed up (they only expected 300). And the Republicans had a very large room for their 30 or so caucusgoers so we negotiated with them to switch. Look the bipartisanship in action in Iowa!

We are herded into the bigger room and fill it up as well, but not as much and there’s no where to go. So we’re about an hour past caucus starting time and finally the guy in charge (who is wearing an Edwards shirt and getting negative comments from the mutterings of Kurt) tells us we have to get ourselves in order. Kurt and I stand with the Obama folks and the Obama precinct
leaders instruct us to make single file lines and then the first person in each line (that’s me) count the rest and report to a guy walking by with a clipboard. So we did that. Our first count, Obama had 167 people (40 percent of the 425 in the room!) It was already a huge upset victory for the Obama campaign. We didn’t know yet that Obama by this time had already been
declared the winner in Iowa so the energy was still electric in that room. Edwards came in second with 77 or so and Clinton
in third, just barely viable, with 67 or so. (Huge surprise to us). In caucusing for the Democrats, a candidate has to receive I think
about 15 percent of the vote to get anything out of it. The Richardson campaign came just shy of the magic number of viability and Dodd, Biden and Kucinich had much fewer votes. Since those candidates weren’t viable, those who were standing in favor of them and others who were undecided were instructed to move to the groups of other candidates for a final tally of votes.

Some came to Richardson, making him viable, and some came to Edwards, Obama and Clinton. The final count was something like Obama: 175; Edwards 88; Clinton 77; Richardson 65. It was such an exciting process. You could feel the energy in the room. People were truly engaged and excited to be participating. Seeing your vote in this tangible format is incredible because you
can see who is with you and who is not. You can also persuade others to join your team. So instead of going to the polls and wondering who all those people are who voted with you or for an opposing candidate, you can actually see them, and see who is winning and losing. And you can talk to them, shake their hands, call them a sucker, yell at them for making a bad choice,
whatever. It’s a democratic thing and it’s fun!

Another interesting aspect to caucusing was seeing the people who came out to support certain candidates. Obama’s supporters were incredibly diverse. There were people of all colors and ages, many of whom had never caucused before or who had just registered to vote in order to caucus for Obama. It was clear he really had touched a marginalized population, and that was
great to see. Edwards seemed to draw mostly middle aged and older white men, though there were some middle aged white women standing for him. Hillary’s people seemed to be mostly middle aged and older white women, and some men. My grad
school friend who caucused in Ames where Iowa State is said that Hillary attracted a lot of gay men at her precinct. Richardson’s people, like Obama’s, were a pretty diverse set, and I didn’t get to see the Biden, Dodd and Kucinich people (one of the downfalls of being a short person in a crowded auditorium).

Now that the caucus is over and all the candidates and their entourages have left Des Moines, it feels a little empty. No more
political ads to entertain us on TV, no more tank-like media trucks taking up valuable parking spaces and making us feel important. I’m definitely feeling a little abandoned!!

It will be interesting to see how Obama’s momentum continues from his big win in Iowa next week in New Hampshire and then on Feb. 5 and how Hillary’s upset will affect her campaign.

Anyway, thanks for reading. I hope those of you who are in and around the Bay Area/Sacramento
area are doing OK. For a change the weather there is worse than here! It’s supposed to get up to 40
degrees today, I can’t wait. I’ve got to go get my bathing suit 😉

The results are in!

Well, I do admit that my experiment was not done in the most scientific of ways. Still, I think the results are interesting, and I’d like to share them.

I am looking to see if my Facebook “friends” represent as much diversity as I would like to think that I have among my friends. I looked at Race/Ethnicity, Religion, Political Affiliation and Views and the size of the city or town a person lives in.

Out of 365 Facebook friends, I received 60 responses (15.6%). Admittedly, the sample is not large enough to have a high confidence rate — it’s about 95% confidence +/-20% — to be certain that the responses reflect the true spectrum of my Facebook friends in entirety. Also, I was limited in scope by the bounds of Survey Monkey, which allows only 10 questions before requiring one to upgrade to a paid account. I also, in retrospect, made some deep errors in questioning — particularly in asking about religious identity— and leaving out important categories on diversity, such as disability and geographic location.

Nonetheless, this is what I found:

My Facebook friends are:

  • Politically Liberal
  • Racially White
  • Straight
  • Believers in God

Now these are broad strokes painted from the results. I have decided to analyze the results of each of the 10 questions in the survey. These will be done in a series of posts.

Ridiculous Outfit Monday Rules

You may know by now that I hate winter. Iowa winter, to be exact.

It’s cold. It’s gray. It’s cold. It’s snowy and icy. It’s cold.

To get through this winter (my fourth in Iowa), I have developed a ritualistic way to make it a little more cheery and give me a little more reason to get up on those dreaded Monday mornings: Ridiculous Outfit Monday.

The rules are simple:

1. Go into your closet.

2. Pull out one article of clothing that is colorful.

3. Blend the rest of your outfit around that single article, but in a way that makes you step out of your comfort zone.

4. The finished product should be office appropriate and make you happy. It should be colorful and experimental. Play with color combinations, patterns, layers, fabrics. Anything goes as long as the dress code gatekeepers won’t frown and write you up for the outfit.

5. Repeat each Monday.

So that didn’t work

Day 2

My experiment failed. Well, what better way than to test it again.

Today, Tuesday, the twins had gymnastics. Shawn Johnson was there. It was hard to pay attention to what the boys were doing when Shawn was doing crazy amounts of push ups and sit ups, enough to make my arms quiver just at the sight of it all!

More rain, haven’t checked the basement yet for flooding.

Had an interesting talk about leadership at work today, or rather the lack of leadership at work. A true leader, it seems, is hard to come by.

Also, it’s poison ivy season.

And, according to husband, “Happiness is a warm gun…”

Starting fresh

Day 1

It’s raining today. The wind got up to about 30 mph. I signed the twins up for gymnastics at Shawn Johnson’s gym in West Des Moines.

At lunch I walked through the Skywalk. The air was stale, but it was good to move. So far the basement hasn’t flooded. Neither has the river.

Monday is pizza night. Pineapple, garlic and meatballs.

Music was Elvis Costello’s Greatest Hits.

The twins went to sleep easily. It seems like Kurt is getting a cold.

The Endless Winter

Just when I thought I was out….

Winter. I can admit that I didn’t know the extent of it until I moved to Iowa 3.5 years ago. This winter, however, is one for the record books.

So far, Iowa has received 57 inches of snow. This is the snowiest winter on record.

What this means in my world is that the ground has been covered with the frozen white stuff in either snow form or ice form since December. It’s February. I am tired of it. My house is tired of having 3-foot-long icicles hanging from its eaves. My snow shovel is tired of the daily plow. My car is tired of skidding around corners. My heater is tired of warming the house 60 degrees warmer than it is outdoors. And I am tired of being cold and stuck inside.

Some people revel in snow, as I have said before. But I don’t understand these people or where they come from. And I wonder if they experience the same winter I do.

All I know is that I wish Punxsutawney Phil had been a bit braver this year and stayed out of that hole! Or rather, I’d like to climb in with him and wait out the bad weather until spring.

Stay away Terminator

Today, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said out loud what many Californians (and probably a lot of other people around the world) have thought, or maybe didn’t think because why would they: “No matter where you go in the world, people still want to come to California,” Schwarzenegger said. “There’s no one screaming like, ‘I can’t wait to get to Iowa.’ That I can guarantee you. They want to come here to California.”

I had to laugh when I read this because, being from California I would have never considered Iowa a destination. In fact, Iowa never entered my thoughts except when I watched “Field of Dreams.

But now that I live in Iowa, I thought Schwarzenegger’s comment to be offensive and misplaced. There are far worse places than Iowa that get far less tourism and far fewer mentions in national media coverage. He had one thing right: California does attract more tourism. People think of it as a destination. And I, too, would rather spend time sunning on the beach in San Diego or running through Golden Gate Park than battling through another Iowa winter (or summer for that matter).

Iowa has some good things to offer, though. It has the Iowa State Fair, as pointed out in a rather snarky comment by a Des Moines Register reader. It has lots of open space and blue skies most of the time. It has Iowans, who have this remarkable ability to stay in Iowa and survive the winters, and it has lots of pork, if you’re into that.

One thing it does have that California doesn’t, and Schwarzenegger can read this as a direct, in-your-face stab at his policies during his tenure as governor, is a functioning state government. While this year has seen a steep budget cut for Iowa, its legislature and governor are working more or less in union to address the problem. There will be no IOUs. There will be no late budget.

No, the pragmatic and earnest Iowa politicians are aiming to push through the legislative session in record time–just to save the state a bit more money after it reorganizes government and trims the budget. I can’t imagine Schwarzenegger or any of the California state legislators making fixing the state a common goal and actually getting something accomplished.

And that is one good reason to come to Iowa.

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