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.

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.

Living in the Battleground

Did you know Joe the Plumber is running for Congress? He is, and guess what? He’s running in my district.

You remember Joe, aka Samuel Wurzelbacher. He had his 15 or 16 minutes of fame during the last presidential contest in 2008 when he questioned Obama about his tax policy. Back then, like now, Obama was talking about his plan to raise taxes on those making more than $250K a year. Joe didn’t like that. Obama’s opponents, Sen. John McCain and Sarah Palin, made “Joe the Plumber” an example of the hard-working Americans Obama wanted to exploit with his tax plan.

Joe has since written a book and gone on to become a conservative activist and is now, like I said, running for Congress in my district. He’s running against Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democratic incumbent, who is serving her 14th term in the House.

Now, I haven’t been following politics much since our move to Ohio a year ago, but one thing I find interesting is that living in this state, and in our previous state of Iowa, we have been afforded a glimpse into the political machinery of our two-party system. Both states are considered battlegrounds. In Iowa, we had the privilege of caucusing in 2008. That was a memorable and exciting experience. That state is still hotly contested. Media outlets in Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, are raking in a lot of money from political ads.

Today, as I drove north from Toledo to Ann Arbor, I saw a billboard that read: “Obama supports Gay Marriage & AbortioGOP billboardn. Do you? Vote Republican” That was the second time in three days I’d seen that billboard. Well, I happen to agree with civil rights and a woman’s right to choose, so I’m not going to vote Republican. But, I liked how it laid out the GOP platform so straightforwardly. It’s so black and white. And so short-sighted.

There is a lot of money being spent in Ohio trying to sway voters to either side. It’s been apparent to me that the Republicans have more money because I’m seeing more ads. During the Olympic coverage on NBC about 3/4 of the ads I saw during the broadcasts I watched were political ads. The Republican ads blasting Obama and trying to unseat Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown were far more numerous than ads against Republican candidates. It was clear to me that the Democrats are being outspent.

All those emails I’m getting from the Obama campaign telling me so were not lying. Democrats are losing the money race. Just like in Wisconsin a few months ago. There, outside Republican money from wealthy donors like the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, fueled the effort to defeat the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker. I have had faith that money could not buy an election. But when Walker retained his seat, I was disheartened. Apparently if voters hear a message often enough, even if the facts are muddled, they will believe the message to be true.

And all that money now — including $10 million from Adelson — is going toward ads, like the billboards I saw around town.

When we lived in San Francisco, we saw a few very interesting political upheavals, including the recall of Gov. Gray Davis that put Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger in the governor’s seat. It was the first successful recall of a California elected official. And it opened up a whole new can of worms for that state. We watched California’s state government take a free fall from dysfunctional to non-functional, and then we packed up and moved to Iowa.

And now, living in the battleground of Ohio, I feel like my vote really counts. My  neighbor, unmoved by neither Obama nor Romney, disclosed she might not vote in this election. I can’t think of a worse outcome than that. And think of all that money wasted!

A Midwest Childhood

A Midwest Childhood

For my two boys (and their friends), living their early lives in the Midwest has given them the opportunity to explore their environments without the hassle of busy streets and shady characters roaming around. They live a relatively happy and carefree existence.

Cold Weather Blows

Weather is a frequent topic nowadays. Actually, since we moved to the Midwest three and a half years ago, it has been the foremost topic of conversation. There’s just so much to talk about.

A passing motorist helps push a car out of a snow drift, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2009, in Des Moines, Iowa. More than a foot of snow was expected in parts of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa, where the National Weather Service warned of "extremely dangerous blizzard conditions" and near whiteout driving conditions. Wind gusts of up to 50 mph could build snow drifts between 8 and 15 feet tall. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

I have never lived in a place where weather dictated your life. Coming from San Diego and San Francisco and being used to a constant temperate climate that never kept me indoors for more than a day at a time, moving to a place where the summers are so hot it feels like a sauna during the day and the bugs eat you alive at dusk and where the winters are so cold it’s actually hazardous for your health to be outside was and continues to be a challenge.

I spent the month of December in a town outside Sacramento. When I came back to Iowa, there was about two feet of snow on the ground and the temperatures hovered around zero (without the windchill). It was a shock, to say the least. But the one question that continued to circle in my mind was: How can people still live here?

I’ve discussed in this blog before how some people I know love winter. They love the cold and could not imagine  living in a place that didn’t have a winter.  It is really, really cold here.

Now, if we were a species that hibernates it would be a different matter. I am all for hibernating. In fact, the first year we lived here I practically did—only left the house a few times in three months. Unfortunately, people have to work to earn money to pay their heating bills. This includes me.

Monday through Friday I trudge through the snow, three miles uphill, to work. I brave the ice, the sleet and the sub-zero temperatures. But I, in no way, enjoy it.

People tell me: “Oh, you should take up cross-country skiing,” thinking that would be a good activity to get me out of the house and out of the winter doldrums. My response is always: “But it’s too cold to be outside!”

And then they say: “Oh, you’ll get warm skiing.”

I say: “Yeah right, after my face succumbs to frostbite.”

Mostly, I’m in agreement that the hearty Norwegians and other northern Europeans who settled here are genetically coded to weather this weather. My Mediterranean blood thinks it’s a bunch of hogwash.

Puritanical, indeed!

As I mentioned in a previous post, moving to the Midwest has made me more aware of the religiosity of Iowans. While religion has always been an interesting topic for me–I am a product of mixed religions–living in Iowa has alerted me to the depth to which Americans hold their faith.

The majority of those we have met here use religion as a compass. It is their community, their network, their foundation. To me, this is a revelation. In fact, I have been marvelling at the incredibly large amount of blog traffic I have received from my post related to praying before a triathlon.

So when I come across an Iowan who has as cynical a view on religion as me, I chuckle. And I cling. And I feel more at home.

I came across this blog post, by a University of Iowa professor, who aims to dispel the reality of the omnipresent devil. Here’s an excerpt:

The Puritan ghost believes that the devil is part of the “elect or non-elect” spiritual delivery system. And if you think you can’t argue with that, you’re right. In fact the only way you can win an argument with Puritans is by kicking them out of your country as the British did. And how thankful the Brits continue to feel about their ancestor’s wisdom each and every day.

Rutabaga for Me, Rutabaga for You

I’m learning to try new things now that I’m living in the Midwest. The latest new thing is the rutabaga.rutabaga1

I’ve been inspired to do it. And, it’s sitting in my fridge, waiting. Waiting for me to cut it up and throw it in a stew. I am so excited. I am anticipating a whole new taste, a whole new world of rutabaganess coming my way. I really don’t know what to expect, but I am looking forward to it nonetheless.

Fall

There’s one thing that is nice about living in the Midwest when it has to do with weather. The fall. The colors are vibrant, the leaves are falling, there’s a chill in the air, and everything beckons a cup of hot apple cider. Currently we have one bright yellow tree and one flame red bush. The rest of our outside space is covered with leaves.

Covered with leaves.

Perfect for stomping.

Weekend Getaway

My husband and I were granted a long-weekend away from normality to celebrate our eighth anniversary, so we hopped in the car and drove five hours straight east and ended up in the Windy City. It’s been a while since I’ve been in  a real city, and this is as real a city as any—especially for the Midwest.

Chicago is filled with noise, smells and sights of almost anything imaginable, like any great city would have, including the smell of urine, the bone wrenching sound of a light rail screeching along the tracks, pigeons bee-lining for your head on a crowded sidewalk, and amazing food. We indulged. We ate, we drank, we lounged. We listened to incredible jazz during the Chicago Jazz Festival, and we admired the interesting and varied architecture and public art around downtown. We ate so much deep-dish pizza we actually got sick of it. And it almost seemed like we were a young couple again, childless and fancy free.

The hotel we stayed at hosted a wine hour each evening, so we obliged. We sat among about 50 other hotel guests in the snazzy lobby, people watching and reminiscing, when an old woman and her husband walked into the room. They looked to be in their late 70s or early 80s. She was wearing a long gown circa 1975, and he was in the same time period slacks and shirt. After they got their wine they sat on a sofa facing us. The old woman turned to a young man next to her, who seemed to be either German or Dutch, and started telling him that she was from Brooklyn and had met her husband, who was in the English Army, in New York.

Then she turned to us and told us the same story. “Thank God for Hitler,” she said, because if it weren’t for him, she would have never met her husband.

My husband and I looked at each other, sort of in a state of amused shock. By then she had turned to the next person and started telling him the same story. Meanwhile, her husband had been working the room, probably telling a similar story of love and adventure during WWII.

Moral of the story: when you come to the big city be prepared to rub shoulders with the wacky and subtly senile.

Chicago lived up to expectations. Visits with old friends, and meeting new ones. Hot dogs with chili, and chorizo stuffed dates. Lake Michigan. Weddings needing to be crashed. And very little wind.

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