Wednesday, November 28, 2007

follow the yellow brick road

It occurred to me recently (as I was rereading California posts that exposed my homesick side) that there's a question I've never really addressed here...

Why Kansas?

How does a family of five start out in one state (the native state for four of them) and end up half-way across the country in a state they've never set foot in? And why? And just what were the circumstances that precipitated this whole thing anyway?

I'm about to tell you. Slip off your ruby slippers and stay awhile.

We need to go back to Spring 1998 to start the story. I was still staying home with three small kids (aged six, two and a half and one), but it was getting a lot harder financially. The Film Geek was still trying to achieve his perfect balance of teaching (which he loves) and film production (which he also loves). He doesn't want to do just one of them though. If he does nothing but teach he turns into a pill and if he only does production he becomes a different kind of pill. (The combination of the two is absolutely perfect for him, as we've found out years later. He gets to do both the things he loves and he doesn't have to pick one over the other).

But things weren't going well in either area. A lot of film production in LA was in the middle of a mass exodus to Vancouver, based on a lot of things but primarily lower costs. I can't remember the exact circumstances (although I'm sure I'll find out when the FG reads this) but there was some weird situation with the University system he was teaching at that was related to the guy who hired him (an old professor of ours) and the short story was that there would not be any teaching jobs available for him for the next academic year.

It was a bad time. Money was really, really tight. We had pretty much cut our expenditures to the bone by then, but LA isn't a cheap place to live no matter how careful you are. Luckily for us, we're both able to retrench into severe hardship mode pretty well. We were living in a town we loved but should never have been able to afford. Through a stoke of amazing luck we were paying considerably less rent than the going rate because the landlady hated turnover and went out of her way to keep tenants. (You wouldn't believe the hoops I jumped through to get the place to start with). The deal was good enough that even moving to a less desirable area would have meant paying more for rent. Staying put was the only answer.

But there was more to it than money. Even though I had lived there since I was eight and consider myself a Californian, I spent enough time in Michigan and Alabama growing up to see that other places had their appeal too. It had been a tumultuous time there the last few years - fires, earthquakes, riots, drive-by shootings way too close for comfort - and there was a part of me that just wanted out. I wanted my kids to be in classes with less than forty kids and to be able to have dogs in a house we owned and to look outside on a winter morning and see snow. The California growing up experience is great, but I was afraid that we were always going to be playing financial catch-up. Real estate prices were spiraling out of control. There was no way we would ever be able to buy a house there. I mentioned moving to the FG, and his reaction was immediate.

Hell, no. Our families were there, the film business was there, all the contacts he had painstakingly made, our friends, our lives...all there. He didn't want to even think of living anywhere else. I may have lived there most of my life, but this was his home.

But that Spring things were very up in the air. There were no jobs to be found. One day he came to me and said that he had been looking on-line at teaching positions and that the University of Michigan was hiring for a ten month period with an August start date. Did I think he should apply? Just for kicks?

Okay. I'm from Michigan, as we already know. I had an extremely high opinion of UofM (and all its programs) and, may the stars strike me down, my first thought was "Right. Like they're going to hire you". (He already knows this part, of course. I finally fessed up, only to find that he felt much the same way). My mind couldn't wrap around the idea of him being gone for that long, but it didn't matter because I was so sure he didn't have a chance of getting the job.

Well, to sum it all up: they hired him. Sight unseen. A couple of phone interviews, a stack of references and it was a done deal. And without getting into all the drama that went along with this decision (surely another long post for another time) the bottom line was that he was going away for ten months while I stayed home with the kids. Desperate times. Desperate measures. Yada yada.

And the thing that started changing his opinion of the whole moving issue was that he really liked Ann Arbor. (Sure he did. He was there without kids). He liked the seasons. He liked the Midwestern feel. He liked the college town atmosphere. For the first time ever, he was willing to consider living somewhere else. At some point in that first few months of him being there, we had a long discussion and worked out a strategic plan. We knew we were moving - we just didn't know where.

The magic date is January 1st. That's when most colleges post their job openings for the next academic year. We were looking for some very specific things. A tenure track position at a film school with plenty of production emphasis. An area with a variety of freelance opportunities. A town with good schools, a reasonable cost of living and plenty of things to do. A place where we could actually buy a house one day. We each drew up a list of where we would and would not live, a list of what was and wasn't important to us. We each listed our top five "ideal" places and also our own personal "not on your life" spots. We haggled mightily when we were on different pages, which didn't happen as much as it could have, but it was still an issue once or twice. And then the Film Geek launched a national search.

He didn't apply for any jobs that flew in the face of our criteria, but it was hard sometimes. Some areas (New York City, San Francisco) we would have loved to live in, but they didn't quite meet that "cost of living" requirement. Other areas seemed to have lots of openings, but they weren't places we wanted to live. Some places we would have loved to live didn't pay for crap. I had this idea in my head that if we were going to be making this kind of move I wanted to go somewhere completely different from what we were used to. I didn't want to leave everyone behind only to be in some other place exactly like LA. But no matter how you looked at all of this - it was a crap shoot.

In the end he ended up getting three offers - Ann Arbor, Pennsylvania and here. He had actually accepted the Pennsylvania job when the one here came up. At the same time, he was one of the final two candidates at Vassar (in upstate New York), which had me on the edge of my seat. When he had to give a decision here, he withdrew his name there. For me, that was kind of the one that got away. But even so, it was a no-brainer, because Liberal Collegeville had every single one of the things on our must have list and virtually every one of our "things we'd like".(It is minus an ocean, there's no getting away from that). When they had flown him in to interview he had fallen in love with the town. And in a display of giving up control that wasn't seen before and hasn't been seen since, with my blessing the FG accepted the job here and committed us to move. I had never set foot in the place.

Sasquatch and I flew out a few weeks after he'd signed his contract. The FG was driving in from Ann Arbor because he had some personnel stuff to do and, in a lovely gesture, the school brought us out too. While we were there the department threw a little meet and greet type thing at one of the chair's houses to make us feel a little more at home. It was a much appreciated welcome, believe me.

Don't think for a second that we didn't hear about our choice to move to "flyover" land. I wish I had a dime for every pair of arched eyebrows coupled with the question "Kansas?" in a disbelieving tone of voice. If I had been given one more pair of red slippers I might have screamed. Everyone, it seemed, had an opinion, and most people, sight unseen, had a preconceived idea of us moving to the middle of a tornado ridden wheat field being plowed by red-necked religious fanatics wearing Wizard of Oz hats. I don't know why some states have a more loaded image than others, but you can say "Missouri" and no one thinks twice. Or "Colorado" or "Iowa". But Kansas?

I was terrified. As long as I live I will never forget having my face glued to the window of the plane as we started our initial descent. I wanted so badly to see what I had gotten myself into.The entire area was such an unknown element, and even though on paper it was damn near perfect, the drumbeat in my head just kept saying please let me like it, please let me like it, please let this be everything we want it to be.

I do like it. Enormously. Thank god, we all do.

For eight years it's been everything we wanted it to be. And more.


Anonymous said...

I have always wondered how you ended up in Kansas, from CA. Especially doing the film work that you both seemed to enjoy. Now it makes sense, like pieces of a puzzle coming together. I have never been to Kansas. We have done 2 road trips, driving across America, from N.Y. to CA. and never went to Kansas. It is one of the few. I always pictured it with lots of farms and small towns. I guess Wizzard of Oz may have had a small part in that.
Anyway, I am glad you all like it there. Do you think you will ever go back to CA., when the kids are older?

my two cents said...

I'm glad you are happy!

Being from NJ, I know about the looks and wise cracks, traveling outside of CA, I know about the looks and the wise cracks.

Sweet Irene said...

Good for you! How nice that it all worked out so well. You did take a huge chance, but now you are happy and you have your house too. I have no idea what it is like in Kansas, but I am sure that I have all sorts of preconceived ideas about it too, like lots of farmland and small towns and not much to do there. It's good to hear differently.

It was a fun post, RC, a good read.

ped crossing said...

Isn't it amazing where we end up. It seems like no matter what you plan, it all changes somewhere along the line.

I'm so glad that you liked it. And you have a really cute house.

Akelamalu said...

I thought a tornado had transported you there? ;)

If it's good enough for Dorothy......

Great to read how you got there Correspondent.

Flowerpot said...

Always fascinating to hear how people ended up where they are.

laurie said...

what a tremendous adventure. talk about seizing control, making decisions, and being in charge of your life.

i love this story. i have never done anything remotely like it, and i admire you tremendously for what you did.

it's so easy to just stay and maintain the status quo.

Jen said...

I'm still catching up on everything (aren't I always), and sorry I've been a bit absent from here.

Like everyone, I always wondered why Kansas, but I can completely understand your decision. Having made a few crazy moves (Toronto to Detroit? Michigan to Alabama??), I know what it's like to make that jump. People in radio always ask us why we ended up in market 189, when we were living in market 37. To them, it seems like a come-down. To us, it was a move for comfort and security. I've never been to Kansas, but I always wondered what it was like. Besides the floods and ice storms I saw on the news, anyway *grin*

Kaycie said...

I've lived half an hour from you (which I'm sure you know) and I spent quite a bit of time in liberal collegeville. It's a beautiful town.

I moved somewhere not once, but twice, sight unseen. The first was Newport News, Virginia. The job opportunity was with NASA, just too good to pass up for a computer dude. I ended up hating it. Newport News is an old ship building town. It's very industrial, dirty, and seems kind of sad now that the ships left.

The other was Aiken, South Carolina. If it weren't for my family and hubby's family being here, I'd go back in a heartbeat. It's beautiful. It's Southern. It has an ocean and mountains within hours of each other. It might be one of the best places in the States.

You're a brave woman, RC. I'm glad it worked out so well for you guys.

laurie said...

ps i had to give a talk a couple of years ago in Wichita, Kansas.

be glad that's not the place you ended up in, sight unseen.....

auntie barbie said...

It seems most of us move for economic reasons. Ya gotta go where the money is. For me it was Toronto, Detroit, Dallas, Toledo, and back to the Detroit area. I always thought we might go back to Texas as we both loved it there but our family and friends are in Michigan so we stayed and moved to a rural area.
It is funny how people have a preconceived idea of what an area is like. When I tell people I’m from the Detroit area folks assume I lived in the ghetto, and when I lived in Dallas they thought I was surrounded by cattle and cowboys.

The Rotten Correspondent said...

eileen - I couldn't say that we'd never move back, but I doubt it. My folks are retiring here in the near future and we're pretty darn settled. We go back a lot and visit - that's always wonderful.

my two cents - California really has its own reputation to deal with, doesn't it??

sweet irene - well, there is farmland in Kansas, although the huge majority of it is in Western Kansas. We're in Eastern Kansas here. I can be in Missouri in half an hour. Lots of towns, but all surrounded by open prairie.

ped crossing - my house thanks you. I have been on a non-ending rant since Fun Monday, so it appreciates anyone who isn't screaming at it.

akelamalu - well, actually the earthquake took me as far as Utah and then the tornado brought me the rest of the way in.

flowerpot - I really think back story is my favorite of all. It fills in so many gaps.

laurie - We wanted to stay and not mess with the status quo, but sometimes you've just got to face facts. My personal opinion(and I'm sure this will be hotly argued by those in the middle of it)is that if you don't already own a home in California you probably shouldn't stay there.

A big catalyst for us that didn't make it into the post was this:

A house around the corner (in 1998) went on the market. We knew the people who owned this house. 1200 sf, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, tiny yard, no garage or basement (almost no basements in LA). The original asking price was $395,000. We said "they're crazy, they'll never get that".

24 hours later, after a bidding war that almost came to blows on their front porch, it was in escrow. Sale price - $425,000.

The writing was on the wall.

jen - It's hard to make those moves, but it's exciting at the same time, don't you think? You've moved a lot more than me though. Do you think you're settled or is that still up in the air?

kaycie - yeah, you do know what I'm talking about, don't you? It is a lovely town. I've never been to South Carolina, but would love to. It sounds terrific. (I love North Carolina, but have an idea that it's a totally different feel).

auntie barbie - money really is behind a lot of stuff, isn't it? When I think of my own family, virtually everyone moved to where the work was. How could you not?

It is so easy to get an idea in your head about a place and get stuck on it. I do it all the time. I just wish I was right more!

Thalia's Child said...

It's funny - I actually did wonder how you wound up in Kansas, but didn't think to ever ask - Americans seem to move around more than Canadians do.

The Rotten Correspondent said...

Thalia's Child - shouldn't you be on your way to the airport? hmmm??

laurie said...

my sister lived in kristin for many years before she died.

they never could afford to buy a house.

Diana said...

So that's what happened. I'd been wondering but never got around to asking.

(As an aside, if you change a few of the particulars, you could have been relating how and why we ended up in our corner of the Midwest from our former slot on the West Coast. Funny how our lives can mirror each others.)

Kimberly said...

You, my dear, are a storyteller. I was on the edge of my seat. So glad things worked out well. =)

Potty Mummy said...

So I'm ashamed to admit that the only things I know about Kansas are Dorothy coming from there(which I think you just might have mentioned already), and that Horton the Elephant stopped off in Wichita on his grand tour whilst hatching the egg. (I love Dr Seuss, don't you?). Great story, RC.

Iota said...

Oh. I wish I hadn't just taken a break from blogging, and then I could answer this post with my own "Why Kansas?" Yes, the Dorothy jokes got very wearing when we told people where we were headed. But we came determined to find good things and good people, and guess what? We have done. There is a bit of my personality which likes to prove people wrong, and it has stood me in good stead!

I also moved here without having visited, but I took the attitude 'better the devil you don't know'. In retrospect, it seems like a brave thing to do, but at the time it was pretty much the only option on the table, which made the decision easier. I used to think of all those people in their covered wagons, heading into the unknown, and that helped put it all into perspective.

One thing I find very touching about Kansans is that so many of them are proud to be Kansan, in spite of everyone else's opinion. And they don't apologise for it. I like that.

PixelPi said...

I'm another transplant that has moved repeatedly during my life (a pseudo-military brat), but for the past 25+ years I've been in Michigan and I'm staying put now. But we are one of the most mobile societies around. Moving to another state (or even country) just isn't that unusual here.

But I do love the feel of being "settled in" (as RC says) and in the place I am, even though I took a real roundabout way to get here.

Willowtree said...

I would have stayed in California if buying a house was a possibility, but like you we decided to go where home ownership was an attainable goal.

No ocean is not such a big deal, most people who live near one never go there anyway.

Kaycie said...

Laurie is right. Stay the hell away from Wichita. It is only slightly worse than Topeka, though. I alwways tell anyone who will listen (some won't, ya know) that Topeka is the armpit of the world. Except for Stormont-Vail, of course. They rock.

Jo Beaufoix said...

RC I could read you forever.
I always wondered how you and FG ended up there. I would love to go to Kansas. And I so admire you for having the guts to just do it.
Glad you're happy there.