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...
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.